ADVERTISEMENT

Will Quad and Aukus alliances drive Europe into China’s arms?

October 3, 2021 GMT

Now that the Quad and Aukus gambits have been employed by the United States and its partners in the global political-economic chess game, who will make the next move? Neither China nor Europe will concede checkmate by rivals and might instead find common cause in a joint strategy.

Looked at from a Chinese perspective, and especially that of the Belt and Road Initiative, the birth of the Quad security grouping among the US, Japan, Australia and India and of the Aukus agreement involving the US, Australia and the UK have enhanced the argument for a united Eurasian continent.

As the focus of the Quad and Aukus ” united by a commitment to shared values, rather than economic rationale ” shifts to the Indo-Pacific region, the case for economic unity among contiguous nations stretching from China to western Europe grows stronger. The fact that two independent, offshore islands in Britain and Japan have now tied their fortunes to the Indo-Pacific only strengthens this logic.

ADVERTISEMENT

Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.

Japan never quite fit into Eurasia, at least in the post-war years, because of its insular geographic situation and its alliance with the US. Britain has scorned continental Europe after Brexit and through its submarine deal with the US and Australia at France’s expense.

When President Xi Jinping first announced the Belt and Road Initiative ” which was initially called ” One Belt, One Road ” ” in 2013, not even he could have foreseen the moves that were to take place subsequently on the geoeconomic chessboard that would strengthen China’s game.

Japan and the UK were possible partners in China’s grand design to unite East and West via a new version of the ancient Silk Road, which this time would take the form of an overland “belt” and a maritime “road”, augmented by a digital highway.

ADVERTISEMENT

The project has suffered many setbacks since it was announced. These include claims that it represents a form of Chinese ” debt trap diplomacy ” to rival attempts to promote alternatives, the latest of which is the US, Japan and Australia’s Blue Dot Network.

Whatever success such initiatives have had in undermining the image of the Belt and Road Initiative, these same rivals are now behaving in ways that could push Europe ” whatever its doubts about the initiative and other manifestations of Beijing’s power ” deeper into China’s embrace.

Admittedly, only France was snubbed directly by Australia’s decision to cancel a lucrative deal with Paris for diesel-powered submarines and opt for nuclear-powered US boats instead. However, the ramifications go deeper into Europe.

With the imminent departure from the European scene of German Chancellor Angela Merkel ” a force for stability and policy continuity if ever there was one ” the influence of France and its president, Emmanuel Macron, on western Europe seems certain to grow.

Nothing is more conducive to unity and even marriages of convenience among different bedfellows than the emergence of a common enemy. With the increasing assertiveness shown by the Quad and Aukus, China and Europe have good reason to make common cause.

The economic rationale for closer China-EU relations is already there. China is now the EU’s biggest trading partner, having overtaken the US in this regard last year. Trade between China and the European Union was worth US$709 billion in 2020, compared with US$671 billion in trade with the US.

The framework for closer economic cooperation was, meanwhile, strengthened on December 30, 2020 when the EU and China concluded in principle the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, in which Beijing committed to a greater level of market access for European investors.

Shortly after, the EU parliament passed a resolution condemning Beijing’s treatment of Uygurs in Xinjiang along with its actions in Hong Kong. In May, ratification of the agreement was frozen.

The EU introduced token sanctions on some Chinese individuals, to which China responded with sanctions on EU institutions and members of the EU parliament. The EU has demanded that China remove its sanctions, while Beijing says this requires Brussels to remove its sanctions first.

The release of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou after the US dropped its bid to have her extradited from Canada could provide a precedent if the EU should decide the advantage in a more hostile global environment lies in closer relations with China.

For Europe, the incentive to closer integration could become more compelling now that the US, Japan, Britain, Australia and India have solidified their institutional relations and tied their fortunes more closely to those of the Indo-Pacific.

The continental logic of closer cooperation among European, Central Asian and East Asian economies is strong, and China already has a plan to connect each region’s industrial heartlands and markets. What is needed is political impetus, and the Quad powers are providing it now.

Anthony Rowley is a veteran journalist specialising in Asian economic and financial affairs

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.