By Chen Chenchen Source: Global Times Published: 2016-11-29
Traveling in Europe these days, it is not uncommon to hear an argument rippling among some scholars, commentators and diplomats - China is successfully executing a classic "divide and conquer" strategy in Europe.
It is true that under the current framework of regional engagement with Europe, subregional cooperation has gained new momentum between China and European countries in recent years. The 16+1 cooperation mechanism between China and Central and Eastern European countries (CEEC) is especially notable, while subregional cooperation between China and Northern European countries, as well as China and Southern European countries, is also burgeoning.
Nonetheless, the mainstream view in China is that it is simply a delusion to claim a Beijing "offensive" to divide Europe.
As China becomes involved more deeply in global affairs, one basic tenant of Chinese diplomacy has become increasingly clear: regional integration is what China advocates more vigorously than ever.
In China`s diplomacy, management of the relationship with one country is often put into the big picture of the entire region that the country sits in. For instance, through regular cooperation forums, China has established partnerships for development with the Pacific`s small island states, Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, Arab countries and so on. For China, regional unification reduces uncertainties, structural conflicts and diplomatic costs, and seeking regional and global interconnectivity facilitates China`s domestic growth as well. This mentality has been deeply rooted in Beijing.
However, such an approach fundamentally differs from the "divide and conquer" tactic that traditional powers used to play. The latter was a colonial legacy aiming to dismember opposition and build up regional chaos. The China-CEEC subregional cooperation, in sharp contrast, serves the overall China-EU partnership. Hans Dietmar Schweisgut, the EU ambassador to China, said in early 2015 in Beijing that China-CEEC cooperation will not harm the EU leadership in Europe, and will add value to China-European relations.
A new type of China-EU relationship, enriched by subregional cooperation mechanisms, is emerging. Beijing has made it clear that subregional cooperation, like China-CEEC cooperation, can help narrow Europe`s East-West gap and boost more balanced development of European unification.
At the moment, Europe faces a test about whether Brussels can offer more efficient Europe-wide coordination. As Fabrizio Zilibotti, president of the European Economic Association, told me during a recent conversation we had in his Zurich office, Europe should try to act together, but the inability of acting together is a European problem, not a Chinese one.
EU unification has been a successful model in regional governance, and it served as the answer to reconstructing a vast continent in the debris of two world wars. The EU has been a peace project, but now it is increasingly perceived as a purely economic one by European leaders themselves. The current generation of European politicians no longer have war memories, unlike their predecessors. For them, economic calculation, rather than a sense of political unification, dominates decision-making.
Behind the skepticism over China`s intentions is a strong sense of European anxiety. As countries on this continent are vying to benefit from relations with China, short-term national gains seem to be prioritized over broader Europe interests. In other words, the real signal behind the European murmuring on Beijing`s so-called divide-and-conquer master plan is much more about a European unification crisis itself.
The inefficiency or inability of acting together entails European anxiety in their relations with not just China, but also Russia, the US, and other parts of the world as well. Take the long-delayed free trade deal between the EU and Canada. In late October, as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement was near the finish line after seven years of negotiations, the Belgium regional parliament of Wallonia`s opposition delayed it at last minute. That cliffhanger story again forced Europeans to face up to the reality: Europeans have to renegotiate how their union is organized.
Indeed, the 2008 debt crisis has exacerbated the North-South divide in Europe, and the current refugee crisis is widening the gap between Europe`s East and West. Moreover, the Brexit challenged a fundamental concept that EU membership is a one-way ticket.
But current crisis is nothing paralleled to what Europe experienced in the first half of the 20th century. Europe has to get rid of shortsightedness and find a way to truly get back to the track of integration. If the disintegration symptoms of the past two or three years continue, Europe will lose a lot.
The author is a research fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.