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‘Cooperation’ by any means necessary

President of China Xi Jinping. (Kremlin/Released)
February 10, 2021

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Those watching the U.S. political system hoping a new administration would usher a return to old, traditional arrangements from before may be disappointed. That begs the question: did they ever change?

The new administration appears to have reversed decisions regarding the plan to reallocate 11,000 U.S. troops and U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) from Germany. The differences should not be overstated. Such actions are the signs of a healthy relationship. Small disagreements are reflective of reordered priorities in a stronger collaboration between the U.S. and NATO. Discourse always results in a more unified consensus. Regardless of the political circus of the day, the commitment to shared values of liberal democracy and free markets will always ensure interests align.

Actions speak louder than words and several recent events demonstrate the strength of NATO. NATO members Montenegro and Croatia demonstrated progress in the long march to promote European values. Recently, Montenegro successfully conducted Democratic elections, which witnessed the Democratic Party of Socialists lose and relinquish power for the first time in more than 30 years. Montenegro and the greater EU community celebrate a peaceful transfer of power and the newly ascendant Democratic Front’s commitment to EU values and historical partnerships with the EU. Part of the success of the Montenegrin elections is due to the successful partnership between the U.S. and Montenegro to secure the Montenegrin election from external influence. Montenegro should build upon this recent success to upgrade the safeguards to internal and external threats.

Although direct US-EU relations remain strong, the question on everyone’s mind in Brussels is where do the U.S. and China stand, and how does the EU function? The Trump administration soured Obama’s pivot to Asia; relations were frosty but stopped short of a full Cold War. Despite the conciliatory language of the Biden administration, it does not appear eager to fully reengage China. Joe Biden’s Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, told the Senate foreign relations committee that Donald Trump “was right” in taking a tougher approach towards China.

As China and the U.S. acquiesced to one another in the last decade, public skepticism of international trade and integration agenda around the globe grew. Recently, the Covid-19 pandemic and China’s role has hardened that skepticism to abject cynicism. Questions remain if the Biden administration has the political capital to overcome these reservations.

For China’s part, the worldwide pandemic presented unprecedented challenges to the world that begged for leaders to emerge. The U.S., distracted with internal political divisions, was unable to assume the traditional role to shepherd the world through the pandemic. Her absence was sorely felt. With the lead actor indisposed, the appointed hour for the understudy had arrived.

Regrettably, China failed miserably. Rather than serve as the shining example of a new futuristic paradigm to model the world, China reacted as a stiff anachronism to the regimes of yesterday. Authoritarian lock-downs, hoarding personal protective equipment, and a closely controlled international media coverage did not reassure the globe of the benevolence of China’s ascent. Instead, questions linger about the origin of COVID-19, the location of a virology lab, and the peculiar decision to continue international flights while simultaneously locking down the city of Wuhan. For its part, China prevents the WHO from fully investigating the origin of the pandemic and provides no explanations. These are not the actions of a global leader.

In light of the troubles caused by the pandemic, the time to rethink traditional economic models has arrived. As the Chief Economist for the European Commission, Rudy Aernoudt notes “ . . . [COVID-19] has revealed the limits of our economic models. It is time to rethink these models.”

New models should address questions such as “why production should be massively offshored? [should we prioritize] resilience instead of efficiency? . . .Do we need strategic autonomy . . . in the field of pharmaceuticals?” Within the EU framework, the solutions are easy to implement such as relocating the production of personal protective equipment and pharmaceuticals in emerging EU economies in the Western Balkans. Many younger members of the EU have young, well-educated, and liberal populations that hunger for opportunities for economic growth — not economic aid to idle.

However, the reaction of traditional EU leadership to China’s awkward international posture is peculiar. From the EU perspective, the most puzzling reaction was the eagerness of Chancellor Merkel to approve the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). Reports are that Chancellor Merkel herself championed the CAI without any concessions from China. The type of concessions that the EU normally obligates prospective countries to make such as efforts to promote transparency, respect human rights, improve working conditions, open investment, or foster an independent media. Such oversight is ironic for an institution that lectures newly joining members on such virtues. Timing the announcement of the CAI contemporaneously to her ultimate year as Chancellor does not project the confidence of a leader accepting responsibility for her decisions.  Instead, it reflects an outgoing leader passing burdens on to those that follow. Unsurprisingly, the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel printed an open letter signed by 100 renowned China experts, researchers, and human rights activists across the globe imploring EU institutions to suspend the CAI.

In this case, EU member states would be wise to learn from their smaller members in the Balkans. Balkan countries are struggling to cope with increased Chinese influence. As detailed by U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies in August 2020, China increasingly coerces Balkan states through Belt and Road Initiative to “shap[e] their policies toward Chinese benefit and interests.”

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin affirmed that “malignant actors such as Russia and China are increasingly trying to use ethnic conflicts, corruption and the weak rule of law in the Western Balkans through disinformation, cyber-attacks and economic manipulation.” Recently, a perception that those in the Western Balkans are not “privileged partners” to the EU vaccine distribution has dismayed many. Around 70 million euros of EU aid money has been pledged, but few vaccine doses have arrived. Instead, Russia and China have offered vaccine alternatives with their traditional influence attached.

To confront the global challenges and the new political and economic answers, the Balkans require a strong and robust EU and NATO to lead. Without strong leadership from both, we risk failing to overcome our new challenges and reverse our progress to date. Le roi est mort, vive le roi!

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Vladimir Krulj is a Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London.