In the continent, unlike in the US, China is not seen as a major strategic competitor, says academic expert
Timothy Garton Ash believes China and Europe have the opportunity to forge one of the great-power relationships over the next few decades.
The internationally renowned historian and commentator says such an alliance has far more potential than any the world’s second-largest economy may have with the United States since it would be devoid of superpower rivalry.
“I think the Europe-China relationship is the neglected great-power relationship. Europe is China’s largest trading partner so there is a massive economic relationship,” he says.
“It is also a less difficult relationship than that with the United States, which is not taking kindly to relative decline. It is finding it more difficult to accommodate a rising China.”
Garton Ash, who was speaking in his book-lined office at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, where he is the Isaiah Berlin professorial fellow, says one of the obstacles to the developing relationship is attitudes in China itself.
“China in a curious way has gone through a large mood swing in its attitude toward Europe. A decade or more ago when George W. Bush was declaring a unipolar world, China very much saw Europe as an alternative pole,” he says.
“The last few times I have spoken to specialists on Europe in China they have been quite contemptuous of the mess Europe has got itself into with the eurozone crisis and its failure to get its act together over a common foreign policy.”
Garton Ash’s most recent book, Facts are Subversive, which includes some of his essays and columns from the New York Review of Books and The Guardian, has just been published in Chinese by Guangxi Normal University Press. It is the second of his books to be published in the country.
Although best known for specializing in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, he has been an acute longstanding observer of China and now makes a point of visiting at least once a year. One of his sons Alec is, in fact, a writer and journalist in Beijing.
“It goes back a very long way to the 1970s and being fascinated by Communist systems in general. I think it is politically the most interesting place on Earth. You have this extraordinary combination of this rich and different civilization mixed with an emerging superpower.
“You also still have a recognizably Leninist party state but at the same time you have an economic system and a society that is very different. It is a great historical experiment.”
Garton Ash, who spends three months every year at Stanford University in California, where he is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, says there is a very different view about China in the US than in Europe.
“There isn’t this sense of great hard-power rivalry in Europe. The mood music is completely different. You have an angry and resentful public opinion about China in the United States. It is also seen as a major strategic competitor and it is not in Europe.”
The academic and author, the son of John Garton Ash who won the Military Cross after being among the first troops in the D-Day landings and who died last year at 95, was born in Wimbledon in London.
He attended top UK public school Sherbourne and went on to take a first class honors degree at Exeter College, Oxford.
He has since combined academic life with that of the journalist, being foreign editor of the Spectator in the 1980s. He was awarded the prestigious George Orwell prize in 2007 and still writes for The Guardian.
Garton Ash, who is also well-known for his regular TV appearances as a pundit on international affairs, says it will be interesting how the China-US relationship will be handled by whoever becomes president after next year’s election.
“I think Hillary Clinton, for one, has thought long and hard about China and how to manage the relationship. The biggest problem is that there is always this emotional reaction in Congress, the media and with public opinion that political leaders have to respond to.”
With the possibility of Jeb Bush seeking the Republican nomination, he believes it is no longer clear that Clinton will win, even if she stands.
“I think if he manages to appeal to the centrist and Hispanic voters then a 68-year-old Hillary Clinton would have a real contest on her hands and I certainly wouldn’t call it for her now.”
Garton Ash argues the US now needs to take some clear steps to build a workable relationship with China to avoid any risk of future conflict.
“They need to say that we recognize you as a superpower and that we actively want you to be a partner in the world order despite the difference in our political systems, which is not to minimize these or pretend they don’t exist,” he says.
“At the same time there needs to be some absolute red lines and non-negotiables, particularly in relation to issues in the South China Sea, so there is absolute clarity and no possibility of misunderstanding or miscalculations that led Europe to stumble into a war 100 years ago.”
The academic says it is clear that we have already moved away from the unipolar hegemony of the United States following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.
“That has now clearly passed. You could say we have a multipolar order but the reality is more like a no polar order and these transitional periods are often historically extremely difficult.”
Even with the prospect of Greece exiting the euro, he is confident the eurozone and the European Union will survive and even if the continent has to endure a long period of low growth, it will still remain a major power bloc.
He believes one of the challenges remains to build a more effective European foreign policy.
“There would be a lot you could do if the will was there as has been shown over the Iran nuclear issue. The problem is that Germany, now the truly acknowledged leader of the European Union, does not have partners. France would like to be its partner but it is too weak because of its own domestic problems. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, could be that partner but does not want to be.”
He does not believe the UK will withdraw from the EU if there is a referendum on its membership in 2017, as the Conservatives propose.
“There is enough pragmatism and realism among the UK to realize it is very cold outside, just as the Scots recently did,” he says.
“What he did was extraordinary but it is a legacy that still clearly depends on continuing to deliver economic performance.”
The Oxford professor rejects British academic Martin Jacques’ notion in When China Rules The World that we are going to soon enter into a more Sinofied world.