New balance of power
The last rival superpower to the United States, the Soviet Union, collapsed in 1991. But, apart from its military strength, the USSR was never really powerful enough to counterbalance US influence. In the late 1980s, Japan seemed capable of challenging America’s industrial leadership, but by the 1990s it lost its competitive edge. China might itself wish to be a major force in a multi-polar world, but has been plagued by its lack of overall strength. Given these realities, China sees the expanding European Union as a likely counterweight to unchecked US power.
In terms of economic output, today’s EU is on par with the US. But it has yet to build a strong defence system that can respond effectively either to regional contingencies or to global needs. What would be the strength of such a system if and when it is developed, and how will it compare with that of the US?
In assessing America’s strength, China follows US debates on the merits of a uni-polar or a multi-polar world with keen interest. Some Americans favour a uni-polar system in which the US dominates. Such a Pax Americana would cost the country less to sustain, but the world would worry if America adopts a wrong policy, as has been the case in Iraq.
The US certainly has a right to curb terrorists like those who staged the attack on September 11, 2001. But the “war on terror” did not warrant the decision to attack a sovereign state and topple its government on the flawed presumption that it housed weapons of mass destruction and was linked to the 2001 attacks.
The US went to war despite strong opposition from France, Germany, Russia, China, and other United Nations Security Council members. France and Germany have since sought to restore good relations with the US, but continue to disapprove of the war. The Middle East, always a region of concern for Europe, has become even less stable as a result of the war. American leadership has been one of the war’s casualties.
In China, the concept of an independent European defence — embodied in the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), as well as the EU’s Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) and various police missions — is thus generally seen as necessary and effective in a multi-polar world system. China observes that on most security matters, the ESDP will (for now) mimic American security interests, because the EU and US share fundamental values of human rights and democracy. Moreover, many EU members have simultaneously pledged their defence capabilities to NATO, which has been led by the US since its creation.
But the ESDP, once fully developed, will not necessarily follow America’s lead unconditionally, especially if American policy continues to deviate from the norm of international law, as in Iraq. As a result of acquiring a pan-European defence capacity, the Europeans are likely to play a more independent role than at present in managing intra-European security relations and carrying out global missions.
China welcomes this expanded security role for the EU. Although it remains wary of international intervention by the EU, the substance and pattern of ESDP operations are likely to win China’s respect for several reasons. First, China’s leaders note that the ESDP gives priority to the legitimacy of its missions. So far, all ESDP missions have respected international law and governmental arrangements among disputing parties. Most of its military or police missions have been based on UN Security Council resolutions, and ESDP missions outside Europe have been at the invitation of local authorities.
Of course, ESDP security missions, even those in accordance with Security Council resolutions, may not operate within the UN system — the EU prefers its own independent leadership. The ESDP does not necessarily require Security Council authorisation as a condition for its missions, and it retains an independent role in executing them. However, when compared with the US, the ESDP (in Chinese eyes) cares far more about international legitimacy, backed by the authority of the UN.
Second, the ESDP is concerned with good governance and institution building. The EU is keen to restore or establish human rights, stability, and prosperity. Outside Europe, the ESDP acts to enhance governance rather than promote regime change, and the EU has often assisted governments’ efforts to improve security conditions.
Third, the ESDP is open to international cooperation. The EU works with either non-EU states, such as NATO members like Canada, Norway, and Turkey, or applicants for EU membership. The ESDP cooperates with the UN and other regional organisations, such as the African Union and ASEAN. When the EU reaches out, it tends to play a leading role in these collaborations.
There are good reasons to expect that China will continue to accept an independent European security mechanism. There is little concern, if any, about the ESDP intervening in internal Chinese affairs, such as Taiwan. Indeed, China wants a strong and independent Europe, and from that vantage point it is not too early for China to envisage a truly multi-polar global system.
Dingli Shen is Executive Dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai and Director of Fudan’s Centre for American Studies