Russell A. Berman
Europe’s Pivot to Asia
In regard of China, economic relations seem to be more important to the EU than freedom and democracy. Is Europe still a reliable partner in the transatlantic alliance? Or will the Brussels-Berlin-Beijing axis dominate?
Differences within the western alliance concerning China emerged in the controversy around the origins of COVID-19 but now even more through the Hong Kong crisis. The United States and some anglosphere allies are calling out China for its breach of the 1984 agreement guaranteeing the city’s autonomous status, and Washington has already announced initial steps to respond to Beijing’s treaty violations. In contrast, the European Union has indicated its intention to do little or nothing, while Germany, about to assume the EU presidency, sees no reason to interrupt its plans to expand its already robust trade relations with China. The trans-Atlantic breach has become a function of alternative China policies.
In order to evaluate this split, it is worth recalling an initial moment in the current troubles between Washington and Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s November 2016 congratulatory note to Donald Trump on his unexpected presidential election victory. The wording of her greeting was widely understood as a finger-wagging criticism of the positions Trump had staked out during the campaign. Thus Merkel: “Germany and America are bound by common values—democracy, freedom, as well as the respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. It is based on these values that I wish to offer close cooperation, both with me personally and between our countries’ governments.” Merkel’s not so subtle jabs may have exacerbated Trump’s already dim view of Germany, but they surely won her points with the German public, always attracted to derogatory comments about the U.S. and already in late 2016 profoundly hostile toward Trump. What’s more, Merkel’s brandishing the importance of shared liberal values led American commentators to pronounce that it was she, the Chancellor of Germany, that had assumed the mantle of the authentic leader of the free world, and not the President of the U.S.
Let us take the Chancellor by her words. Nearly four years ago, she made cooperation with the Trump administration explicitly contingent on “democracy, freedom as well as respect for the rule of law.” Today the question is whether Berlin and Brussels will apply the same measure to Beijing. The answer is apparently not.
As China tramples on its treaty obligations, moves toward ending democracy in Hong Kong and eliminates the freedom that the citizens of that city have displayed so much courage defending, Berlin has shown no willingness to reverse course on its China policies. Apparently, the prospects for trade deals cancel all values, except the value of business prospects. Ethics must take second place, as the German playwright Bertolt Brecht famously and sardonically commented: “First comes the feeding and after that morality.” Berlin and Brussels are showing us how right he was.
Faced with the announcement that the Chinese National People’s Congress would deliberate on new national security legislation designed to crush Hong Kong’s autonomy, the European Union issued a timid statement that culminated with the bravado promise that it would continue to ‘follow developments closely.” Quite a commitment! In contrast, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the United States designated Hong Kong as a “bastion of freedom,” denounced Beijing’s “unprecedented move,” and called on the government of China to respect the Sino-British Joint Declaration that established Hong Kong’s post-British standing. It is that Declaration that represents the pertinent rule of law regarding Hong Kong. Yet upholding rule of law in Hong Kong is not important enough in Berlin to jeopardize the EU summit with General Secretary Xi Jinping , originally scheduled for September in Leipzig, and now postponed because of COVID but not because of Chinese disregard for law or human rights violations.
This subordination of political values to economic prospects turns out to be a pattern. It is evident in current debates around technology as well. Washington has identified participation by Chinese company Huawei in 5G networks as a security risk and has pushed allies to find other suppliers (such as Erikson, Nokia or Samsung). Some countries have done so. Apparently, after considerable waffling even the British government has just come over to the American position on this and decided against Huawei, but Germany, in particular, as well as some other European countries, are keeping the door open to Huawei—for fear, so it is claimed, of irritating the Chinese government and therefore losing out on lucrative opportunities. The Merkel government’s reluctance to take a firm step on Huawei is all the more remarkable because members of her own Christian Democratic Union in the Bundestag agree with the American concern about Huawei as a security risk.
Yet while influential parts of the European leadership are doves on Huawei, they are never shy about hawkish attacks on American big tech. This animosity toward Silicon Valley erupted most recently in the controversy over the optimal platform design for COVID tracking apps. Silicon Valley argued, in a characteristically libertarian way, against providing states centralized data bases and instead to operate contact warnings through the dispersal of data on individual users’ smartphones. In contrast, European technology leaders were eager for a structure that would allow for centralized monitoring by a state agency. For now, the American model has won out, but the differential evaluation of American big tech and Huawei is symptomatic: not only do parts of the European political leadership prefer to ignore the security threat posed by Huawei, European technology leadership is quite prepared to structure pandemic monitoring in a centralized manner consistent with the Chinese surveillance state. At stake is therefore not only Europe’s trading with China but also Europe’s becoming like China.
Of course, there are ranges of positions in Europe, including some strong privacy advocates as well as articulate critics of Chinese human rights violations. However, as the tensions between Washington and Beijing rise, an unmistakable pattern is emerging in Europe, by no means yet definitive but certainly worrisome, to choose sides against the Atlanticist values alliance. Are we witnessing the emergence of a Brussels-Berlin-Beijing axis? Unless Europe comes up with a strong response concerning Hong Kong soon and the EU-China summit is either cancelled or made contingent on respect for Hong Kong autonomy, then it will be clear that Europe is on course to depart from the West and the community of democracy defenders.
Meanwhile on the left one is beginning to hear the typical anti-Western litanies. Because China suffered from European imperialism in the past, the West must accommodate Chinese ambitions today. Because China is pursuing economic development, the West must withhold criticisms of its violations of civil rights. Such apologetics recycle what we saw repeatedly after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine: many Germans, across the political spectrum, argued that one had to understand Russia and Putin—and that rhetoric won them the sardonic epithetic “Putin-Versteher,” Putin-understanders, i.e., apologists. We should brace ourselves now for a wave of Xi apologists too: China has a right to reclaim for itself all the power it imagines it deserves, and what’s more its dictatorial system—so argue the useful idiots and mendacious propagandists—is efficient, compelling and successful in overcoming poverty and fighting the pandemic.
Those depictions are rubbish, but they circulate not only because of a concerted Chinese disinformation campaign, including from Chinese diplomacy. They also demonstrate that in parts of the western opinion making elite the pro-China tilt combines the venality of economic interest with genuine authoritarian impulses. From that point of view, Europe’s problem with the Hong Kong democracy protestors is simply that they support democracy. One cannot avoid the proposition that advocacy for democracy in Asia does not interest the leadership of the European Union precisely because of its own endemic democracy deficit. Chinese defenders of liberty understand this: they hold American flags, not European Union ones, presumably because they understand where Brussels is likely to stand on this existential conflict—existential for Hong Kong but also for the meaning of Europe.
When Russia annexed Crimea, Europe responded by joining the United States in imposing a significant sanctions regime. As China annexes Hong Kong, will Europe join the Washington in opposing Beijing’s attack on democracy? So far, nothing indicates much of a reaction of that sort. On the contrary, one can only suspect that Europe sees American sanctions on China as an opportunity for its own business interests to move in, regardless of the character of the regime.
This dystopic outcome for the Atlantic Alliance is not yet settled, but it is a distinct possibility. One should see all this as one of the unforeseen outcomes of Brexit: if the United Kingdom were still part of European Union foreign policy deliberations, Brussels would surely not be as spineless on the Hong Kong question. Be that as it may, anyone interested in the future of the West and freedom should be deeply concerned about this European “pivot to Asia,” because it means a pivot away from the Atlantic community of values, precisely those values that Chancellor Merkel underscored to Donald Trump in November 2016. Four years later, the tables are turned: Angela Merkel wants her deal with the dictator as her crowning achievement before the end of her chancellorship, while despite all the Cassandra accounts in the press over the past four years, it is Donald Trump who is taking the hard line with Xi in order to uphold the values of liberty, democracy and law.
Russell A. Berman was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He is professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature at Stanford University. Berman is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.