Europe Can Be A Powerful Mediator In The U.S.-China Rivalry

With the U.S. and China locked in a struggle that may last decades, Europe has an opportunity to play a vital role as stabilizer and mediator.

(Getty Images / Westend61)

George Yeo was Singapore’s minister of foreign affairs from 2004 to 2011.

This essay is adapted from the author’s speech at the European University Institute’s School of Transnational Governance in Florence on May 23.

Anti-China sentiments in Europe have risen in recent years, not just among European leaders but also among ordinary people. It is hard for many Singaporeans to understand why the Western attitude toward China has become so much worse. Different reasons are cited at different times — President Xi Jinping’s autocracy, Chinese diplomats behaving like “wolf warriors,” alleged genocide in Xinjiang, introduction of the national security law in Hong Kong, threats against Taiwan, excessive territorial claims in the South China Sea, spying, unfair treatment of foreign companies in China, theft of intellectual property, unfair trading practices, the baleful influence of Confucius Institutes, hiding information about the origin of Covid — the list goes on. The most recent is probably China’s refusal to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and its persistence in being friendly to Russia. 

While each grievance is worthy of discussion and debate, we should also know that China has its own grievances against the West. Chinese leaders and many Chinese people believe that underlying Western negativism towards China is an unwillingness to accept China as an equal and a desire to pull China down if possible. Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the U.S. for many years, said in a speech in Beijing in December 2021 after his retirement that there was no bottom line to America’s ill will for China. He believed that there was a strong element of racism in Americans’ attitudes toward China. Repeated hostile statements made by G7 countries remind the Chinese of the aggression of the Eight-Nation Alliance (Germany, Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the U.S., Italy and Austria-Hungary) that invaded China in 1900 to put down the Boxer Rebellion. 

After suffering for decades at the hands of Western powers and Japan, China’s leaders and people are determined to stand up to the West, and particularly the U.S. Importantly, however, China does not see Europe as an enemy, and is certainly not an enemy of Europe, and China-Europe relations are critical to world peace.

When European Jesuits set out to convert China to Christianity in the 16th century, they did not have with them guns and gunboats to support their cause. They had to use reason and the power of persuasion. To do this, they had to understand the Chinese mind. The great Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, thought at first that he should dress like a Buddhist monk, only to discover that the Chinese literati looked down on monks. He learned quickly that the mandarins respected scholarship and, here, he was in his element. Blessed with an encyclopedic memory and extraordinary intelligence, he mastered the Chinese language and classics.

But his evangelization had limited success. It met obstacles at every turn. Just translating deus into Chinese was an intellectual exercise — no equivalent idea existed in Chinese thinking and philosophy. Catholic catechism books of that era published by the Jesuits portrayed Jesus, Mary and the Apostles as Chinese figures. 

From the Jesuits, Europeans learned about China. They learned how to organize an elite civil service based on examinations. According to the scientist and historian Joseph Needham, the French encyclopedists like Voltaire and Descartes learned from China how it was possible to have a moral order without organized religion. Needham argued that this laid the intellectual basis for the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. 

Later, in the 19th century, Christian missionaries arrived backed by military power. Jesus and Mary became European. The Christian God became a foreign god. Europe had decided it no longer had anything to learn from China. 

“Europe had decided it no longer had anything to learn from China.”

The Homogenous Nature Of China

China is an unusually homogeneous country. More than 92% of its population is Han. There is no comparable nationality in the world, now or in the past, which in huge numbers share a common culture and civilization. China’s population is almost twice that of the European Union. Unlike the EU which in my mind remains a confederation of tribal nations, the Han people have only one literature and acknowledge the same heroes. India’s population has overtaken China’s but it does not have China’s homogeneity — it is perhaps more like Europe in its diversity.

China’s homogeneity did not happen by chance, but neither was it the result of particular policy decisions. Han rulers for millennia have found it difficult to govern non-Han people because they behave differently. It is for this reason that China’s instinct is always to build walls around itself, not to keep its people in, but to keep foreigners out. The Chinese national anthem talks about rebuilding great walls. China builds walls for everything. Not just physical walls: walls for capital flows, cultural imports, foreign movies, educational material, cyberspace and, as we saw recently, bacteria and viruses. 

Over 2,000 years ago, the Qin Dynasty unified China. Weights and measures were standardized. Writing was standardized. Households were forbidden to have weapons — even kitchen knives beyond a certain size. The Qin rulers were legalists: Laws were enforced rigidly and harshly. The dynasty ended with the second emperor because both elite and ordinary people could not take the severity. 

The succeeding Han Dynasty, which lasted 400 years and was roughly contemporaneous with republican and imperial Rome in Western Europe, changed the ruling philosophy from legalism to Confucianism. Confucianism put great stress on rituals and proper behavior. If the emperor, the official, the father and the son behave in the proper way, society will be in harmony. A famous line in “The Great Learning” goes: cultivate the self, raise the family, govern effectively and the world will be in harmony. In such a world, non-Han people who were brought up differently could not fit it easily. Force, though not preferred, may have to be used.

Paper And Pictographs Lifted Chinese Civilization

To me, the two most important of the many explanations for China’s homogeneity are the invention of paper and later of printing. China invented moveable-type printing during the Northern Song Dynasty, centuries before Gutenberg did so in Germany, something that my British school textbooks in Singapore failed to mention. 

Paper and ink enabled China to store and process data in a way no other society could, and to organize large numbers of human beings in a complex division of labor. For centuries, China had a monopoly on paper, protecting the technology as a state secret. Today, China may protest at U.S. moves to deny it cutting-edge technologies, but it knows from its own history that it did the same with paper and gunpowder technology for a long time. 

My second explanation for China’s historical continuity is the writing system, which is based not on alphabets but on pictographs. Children can read words in Chinese earlier than those whose words are composed of alphabets because they are pictures. Words written as pictographs keep their value while words written in alphabets change with different pronunciations. A high school student in China today can read Chinese classics written over 2,000 years ago without too much difficulty because the characters have not changed. (Understanding what is written takes more time of course.) You can’t do this in Europe or in India. Pictographs give written Chinese a digital quality as the value is fixed across time and space. 

If paper represented a form of computing, the programmers were the scholar mandarins who mastered the written language. Historians have described China during that time as a bureaucratic state. It remains so today. Instead of scholar mandarins, we have Communist Party cadres. Because of paper, the corpus of historical records on China is enormous and has no parallel anywhere else. There is a tradition of every dynasty compiling an official history of the previous one. In all, there are 24 official histories that record with great accuracy events, places, dates and personalities. 

This obsession with data collection and record-keeping continues in 21st-century China. China has arguably become the most data-intensive society in the world, making use of information technology in a huge way. A common Western perspective is that there is no privacy in China — the State intrudes into every sphere of life. This is legitimate but provides only a partial picture. 

China today makes use of data analytics to improve governance and reduce corruption. It is much harder for corruption to be hidden when so much data is collected through a multi-dimensional matrix and constantly being compared to other towns, cities and provinces. 

China now has close to 3 million 5G stations extending right up to Mount Everest base camp. With so much bandwidth available, new products and services are being rolled out, like driverless vehicles and robotics. The recent Shanghai auto show showed how much the electric car industry has developed in China and was a shock to many in the industry. While China has about a sixth of the world’s population, it has a third of the world’s robots. Last year, almost half the world’s new robot installations were carried out in China. 

Meanwhile Western sanctions against Huawei caused many countries to hold back the introduction of 5G, and with it the growth of new industry sectors. 

“Today, China may protest at U.S. moves to deny it cutting-edge technologies, but it knows from its own history that it did the same with paper and gunpowder for a long time.”

U.S.-China Relations 

The U.S. and China are locked in a protracted struggle that may extend for decades. By 2050, China will probably have a much larger economy than the U.S. in nominal terms. Some economists think that China’s economy at that time will be the size of the U.S. and EU economies put together. The prospect of such a China is daunting to many Americans. 

Short of nuclear war, China’s re-emergence on the global stage cannot be prevented. How China will behave when it recovers that position can be discerned in its history — this is not the first time the world has witnessed it. China’s neighbors see a replay of the past and are re-triangulating their positions accordingly. All of them had encounters with China in its earlier incarnations and are able to draw on past experiences and accumulated wisdom. 

The U.S. fears that China is seeking to dislodge and replace it as global hegemon. China’s strategy is much more subtle. It certainly has no wish to replace the U.S. as global policeman and to send its warships and military aircraft to distant parts of the world. It will however want to protect its own interests in trade and diplomacy, for which it needs military assets. Chinese statecraft and strategic thinking much prefer to use non-military means to achieve political objectives. China is often accused of using economic coercion, which is not unjustified. 

By making use of the size of its market, China is able to influence the behavior of other countries, especially its neighbors, through economic reward and punishment. China has by far the most integrated economy in the world, which is already the largest in real terms. Most economies in the world are more dependent on China than China is on them. Imperial China maintained a tributary system with many of its neighbors. This tributary relationship is not what is commonly understood in Europe, where a tributary state pays money to a hegemon either for protection or to keep its autonomy, like the relationship of Muscovy to the Golden Horde or Dubrovnik to the Ottomans. In the case of China, the tributary state, by acknowledging China’s seniority, which included its representative having to kowtow to the emperor or to an empty throne, receives huge trading benefits in return. In Southeast Asia, kingdoms vied with one another for a greater share of the China trade. 

When it wishes to reward a friendly neighbor, it only needs to open the door a little wider. When it needs to punish a wayward neighbor, it shuts the door a little to inflict pain. In the Chinese mind, economic carrots and sticks are a much better way to manage foreign relations than military force. In the “Art of War” by Sun Tzu, superior strategy is the achievement of strategic objectives without the need for war. 

The “dual circulation economy” supports such a strategy. It was put forward in 2020 but is really nothing new. In its history, China’s internal circulation was always much more important than its external circulation. What the Chinese government did under Xi Jinping was to progressively reduce the ability of other countries to hold China to ransom on particular technologies, products or raw material. China’s energy sources are well-diversified, and so too its import of critical minerals like lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper, though its dependence on Australia for iron ore causes some concern.

The U.S. has tightened exports of advanced technology products to China in order to slow down China’s development of AI, quantum computing and other areas. The “chip war” may slow China down but it will, in the end, make China more formidable. In 1960, following deteriorating relations between Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Zedong, Soviet scientists and engineers were suddenly pulled out of China, leaving several major infrastructural projects unfinished. The Soviet Union also stopped helping China develop an atomic bomb. China progressively overcame all those obstacles. In 1964, it exploded its first atomic bomb. When Brezhnev threatened nuclear war on China, Mao ordered the dispersal of strategic industries and had tunnel complexes dug under every major city. In the last few years, the Chinese people have been psychologically preparing for a prolonged stand-off with the U.S., including the possibility of war. 

The strength of anti-China sentiment creates its own reality in the U.S. today. If there is an incident in the South China Sea that causes the loss of American lives, the passions of the U.S. body politic and media may be unstoppable and force the U.S. into an unintended war. If the U.S. is unable to prevail with conventional weapons, which is what repeated war games demonstrate, the temptation to use nuclear weapons may become too strong. 

“China has no wish to replace the U.S. as global policeman and to send its warships and military aircraft to distant parts of the world.”

Europe, China And Multipolarity 

I find it troubling the way some European leaders today support U.S. pressure on China without careful consideration of China’s nature or Europe’s own vital interests. This is a matter of war and peace. Europe’s stance can tilt the balance in U.S.-China relations either way. 

Europe must naturally calculate in its own self-interest. The Trans-Atlantic Alliance is based on a common civilizational inheritance. NATO establishes the security framework for the EU to flourish. Without it, the long peace in Europe following the end of the Second World War would not have been possible. 

That peace has now been shattered but could get much worse if Russia, which spans 11 time zones, breaks up. If that happens, there will be mayhem in Eurasia for decades. China may then be forced to move and may decide to reclaim land it lost when it was weak. This would not be a good outcome for Europe. 

Looking forward, Europe has to decide how it wants to live with Russia as a neighbor. There is naturally a range of views. In the end, Europe has to decide its own position while preserving the essence of the Trans-Atlantic Alliance. The danger for Europe is that a prolonged standoff in Ukraine will undo the careful consensus that had created the Europe of today. 

China’s close relationship with Russia is to be expected because both have come under great pressure from the U.S. They are not natural friends. They were close to nuclear war in the 60s and early 70s. Today, Russia needs China, and China does not want to see Russia defeated. It is not realistic to hope or expect China to condemn Russia and support the West in the Ukraine War. At the same time, China does not want to support Russia in the war — this is not China’s war. 

China’s proposed peace plan is an attempt to square a circle. In reality, it is not a plan but a statement of principles. Nevertheless, it may become useful once serious discussion for a ceasefire begins. Right now, both sides are giving war a chance, which is tragic. We are not likely to see a peace agreement for a long time. The West cannot allow Putin to win while Russia, having expended so much blood and treasure, cannot afford to lose. It is entirely possible that a ceasefire without political resolution can go on for decades like in Korea, Kashmir and Cyprus. For as long as there is no peace agreement in Ukraine, Russia will need China because of Western economic sanctions. 

China may well play an important role in helping to create conditions for an end to the Ukraine War. The time is not yet ripe. Only when the protagonists are exhausted will minds turn toward a ceasefire. At that point, China’s current intermediate position between Europe and Russia may become helpful. China can only be effective with European support. The U.S., however, would not like to see China playing such a role. 

“It is not realistic to expect China to condemn Russia and support the West in the Ukraine War. At the same time, China does not want to support Russia in the war — this is not China’s war.”

The Taiwan Issue 

The sense of the past in Chinese society makes its culture highly conservative. Its actions today shouldn’t be measured against Western norms. Consider the misunderstanding over Taiwan. In the 19th century, the European powers and Japan carved out pieces of territory for themselves from a declining Qing China (1644-1911). Hong Kong was lost in 1842 after the Opium War. By 1862, all ships arriving at ports on the China coast and up the Yangtze River were inspected mostly by the British, who after deducting what they claimed for themselves gave the remainder to the Chinese government. 

In 1894, Japan defeated China and took Taiwan. During the First World War, China was on the side of the Allied Powers and supplied to Europe 140,000 workers, expecting that German concessions in China would be returned to China after Germany was defeated. When, instead, the German concessions were given to Japan, there was outrage throughout China. 

In December 1943, General Chiang Kai-shek met President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill in Cairo. The Cairo Declaration promised the restoration of Taiwan to the Republic of China. The civil war in China a few years later resulted in the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, but the PRC would have recovered Taiwan soon enough but for the outbreak of the Korean War, when the presence of the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait prevented PRC military forces from moving across. Thus the ROC continues in Taiwan today. 

China’s reunification is therefore unfinished, deeply emotional business. Beijing’s wish is for peaceful reunification, which was the reason Xi was prepared to meet former President Ma Ying-jeou as an equal in Singapore in 2015. But Beijing cannot abjure the possible use of force if Taiwan takes the road of independence any more than London or Madrid could if Scotland or Catalonia were to declare independence unilaterally. 

As long as there is no external involvement, peaceful reunification will eventually take place — the Taiwanese economy is increasingly tied to a larger Chinese economy. The great majority of Taiwan’s people are self-consciously Chinese in a cultural sense, even though many do not want to be citizens of the PRC. They share similar rituals, they celebrate the same festivals, they worship the same deities. 

When European leaders take positions on Taiwan that disregard Chinese history, it irritates China and serves no strategic purpose. For China, the issue of Taiwan is not a play of words or protocol niceties — it is about historical justice. China believes that its claim on Taiwan has a stronger legal basis than many countries’ sovereignty or territorial claims. 

Despite repeatedly affirming “One China” and that the PRC is the sole legal representative of China, the U.S. maintains strong political and military links with Taiwan, including the supply of advanced military equipment. It is not surprising that China believes that the U.S. is playing Taiwan as a piece on a larger geopolitical chessboard and wants to prevent reunification indefinitely. The U.S. naturally wants Europe on its side in this game. 

Taiwan is the key issue in Europe-China relations. All others are minor in comparison. Europeans are not united on it, and China knows that many feel like they have to take the U.S. side. When German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock visited Beijing in April, State Councilor Wang Yi expressed the hope that Germany would support Chinese reunification the way China had supported German reunification. Unlike Germany, which was broken up because it was an aggressor power, China remains divided because it was a victim. 

When President Emmanuel Macron visited China earlier that month, he had warm meetings with Xi. He had with him a large business delegation. In a subsequent interview with Politico, he said that Europe must not get “caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy.” In sharp contrast, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell wrote an article where he called for European navies to patrol in the Taiwan Strait “to show Europe’s commitment to freedom of navigation in this absolutely crucial area.” As expected, China protested. Freedom of navigation has never been an issue in the Taiwan Strait. 

“China’s reunification is unfinished, deeply emotional business.”

Europe Can Stabilize U.S.-China Relations 

The crystallization of a multipolar world is inevitable. If the U.S. tries to maintain global dominance, I fear it will exhaust itself. It costs a fortune for the U.S. to maintain hundreds of military bases around the world. By printing money to cover the cost of these bases, the U.S. is, in effect, taxing all of us to cover the expense. However, the manner in which the financial system and the dollar are being weaponized by the U.S. is encouraging Russia, China, India and a number of other countries to actively work to reduce the world’s dependence on the dollar and the U.S.-controlled global financial system. When the dollar loses its dominance, a great flywheel will turn in the opposite direction with huge consequences for everyone. 

It is better for the U.S. to shape multipolarity as it is crystallizing, and be primus inter pares (first among equals). That is completely achievable. China cannot take on that role because of the nature of its culture. Neither can Europe or India. The U.S. has a culture suited for multipolarity. Although we can’t openly admit it, to some extent, the culture that binds the EU together and the culture that binds ASEAN together are both derived from America. It is therefore in Europe’s interest to help bring about a multipolar world with the U.S. as first among equals. China and Russia won’t like it but there is no real alternative. 

Europe’s role in shaping such an outcome is decisive. Europe can either fuel American desire for perpetual global dominance or it can force on the U.S. a more realistic agenda. On China, Europe should take its own position. Neither is a natural enemy of the other. 

On a number of issues, a more thoughtful European stance can stabilize other regions. In the Middle East and Africa, Europe has an abiding interest. It has been estimated that in 2050, one in four human beings in the world will be African and one in three will be Muslim. Roughly 40% of babies born then will be African and 50% Muslim. The stark fact is that if African economies in the coming years do not take off, there will be political upheavals on a continent three times the size of the United States and it will be well-nigh impossible for Europe to prevent a steady influx of refugees, many of whom will be Muslim.

For African economies to grow, infrastructure is needed. Right now, the country doing the most to help provide Africa with infrastructure is China. China’s links with Africa are growing steadily. Looking ahead, it behooves Europe and China to work together to help Africa so that the continent can develop in a healthy way. 

In many sectors of the international trading system — like electric vehicles, shipbuilding and civil engineering — China is a first-world country. World Trade Organization rules, which were agreed to when China acceded at the end of 2001, have to be amended to take into account the changes of the last 20 years. Differences between China and the U.S. are too sharp for negotiations to be easily carried out. Europe can bridge that gap. Happily, in Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, we have a determined director-general. 

At the heart of Europe’s dilemma is the issue of its strategic autonomy. China would of course prefer a Europe that exercises a high degree of strategic autonomy from the U.S. but knows that this is not possible. It is certainly in China’s interest to have a strong euro. China is well aware that the transatlantic links are enduring because they are rooted in history and Western civilization.

“Europe can either fuel American desire for perpetual global dominance or it can force on the U.S. a more realistic agenda.”

The Communist Party Is Like The Catholic Church

Following in the footsteps of Matteo Ricci and his fellow Jesuits, European leaders and intellectuals ought to study China seriously. Today, I can fairly say that China understands Europe more than the other way around. In 2003, China’s government commissioned a study of the rise of the great powers. Beginning with Portugal and Spain, the series went on to cover in broad strokes the rise of Holland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Russia, the Soviet Union and the U.S. There was little moral judgment and no recounting of how China suffered at their hands. Instead, there was a distillation of the key reasons for their rise and the individual characteristics of each. For example, the episode on Great Britain cited Winston Churchill’s remark that William Shakespeare was more valuable to the British Empire than all of India. The episode on France began with a debate in the French Parliament on the induction of Alexandre Dumas into the pantheon. The one on Russia began with Peter the Great witnessing the execution of his own son. I would even say that, for each great power, the Chinese documentary expressed a certain admiration. 

For Europeans trying to make sense of China, I suggest using the prism of the Catholic Church which all Europeans are familiar with. In many ways, the Chinese system operates like the Catholic Church. It is hierarchical. No speech is made without moral invocations. Most speeches are boring because they repeat dogmas and past precedents. For both, record-keeping is important. In one, the elite is composed of clergy; in the other, of cadres. Both face corruption as a mortal challenge. Pope Francis and Xi Jinping became leaders almost on the same day. Separately, each decided that tackling corruption was a life-and-death struggle. The congregations are roughly of equal size. Their unity is maintained by tight control over doctrine. The Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which is supposed to be the basis of the European construction, is equivalent to the Party line in China, where considerable flexibility is allowed because of vastly differing local conditions. Both the Vatican and China have a great sense of continuity and are conservative in their deep nature.  

I was involved with work in the Vatican for years, serving for six as a member of the Vatican Council for the Economy. Before one of my meetings in Rome, I visited the Vatican Observatory and the University of Rome and was briefed on an interesting project called the Galileo-Xu Guangqi meeting, which was organized by the International Center for Relativistic Astrophysics. 

Xu Guangqi was a Chinese astronomer and government official who was converted to Catholicism by Matteo Ricci in Nanjing. With the help of the Jesuits, who had created the Gregorian Calendar we now use, Xu Guangqi corrected the Chinese calendar, which inscribes lunar cycles within the solar calendar. The old Chinese calendar had gone out of sync. It was a huge embarrassment for the court astronomers when Chinese New Year did not begin on the new moon and when the moon was not full in mid-autumn. Both Xu and Galileo were contemporaries. Both were mathematicians and astronomers. 

At the meeting, I met a group of brilliant young scientists from Europe, China and elsewhere who study the cosmic bursts that the Earth is constantly receiving from different directions. In that environment, it did not matter what a person’s nationality was. In February this year, a Chinese scientist was appointed president of ICRA. Between Europe and China, we need a multiplicity of such initiatives to pave the way to a better future for all of us.