The Geopolitical Labyrinth

When the extent of integration with China is also the ground of conflict, the West is not so unified.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

It is more difficult than ever to reconcile idealism and realism in the conduct of a nation’s foreign policy. That is because the diplomatic notion of the nation as a self-contained and easily defined set of values and interests juxtaposed against others simply no longer fits anyone’s reality. 

The world we live in is neither converging as it was in the era of post-Cold War globalization, nor is it entirely diverging from the premises of a liberal world order, which nourished the rise of those now challenging it. Rather we are stuck in an interdependence of contraries where the extent of integration has itself become the new ground of conflict. Navigating through this dizzyingly complex labyrinth makes it nearly impossible to chart a path out of the maze not in contradiction with itself.

This was on full display last week as French President Emmanuel Macron and European Union President Ursula von der Leyen were granted an audience with Xi Jinping in Beijing not long after Xi was feted in Moscow by Vladimir Putin, affirming the “no limits” friendship that gives succor to the aggressor in Ukraine against the sanctions imposed by a resolute West.

While the United States is seeking to contain China as a “strategic rival” and decouple the economic exchanges that fostered its rapid climb toward prosperity, Macron took tea with Xi in Guangzhou and joined up to what they called “a global strategic partnership.” He headed home with a big contract for Airbus to build out China’s commercial airline fleet. 

Macron pleaded with Xi to convince Putin to stand down in Ukraine, but, channeling Charles de Gaulle during the Cold War, also distanced himself from the Taiwan conflict, arguing in the name of “strategic autonomy” that Europe should resist becoming America’s “vassal” and not be drawn into conflicts that were none of its business. Rather, he said, it should strive to become a “third superpower” in a multipolar world. 

Last year, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also trekked to the Middle Kingdom with a similar plea on Ukraine a few days after he approved the partial sale of the Hamburg port to a Chinese company. Since 40% of Volkswagen’s business is in China, he also brought along its executives and those of other German industrial giants seeking to secure market access going forward. 

Before heading to Beijing with Macron, von der Leyen staked out a more bristling view of Xi’s policies, declaring they are aimed at “systemic change of the international order with China at its center … where individual rights are subordinated to national sovereignty” and “security and economy take prominence over political and civil rights.” 

Trying to thread the transatlantic needle, she has called for “de-risking, not decoupling” relations with China in order to avoid a Russia-type dependency in critical supply chains or providing frontier technologies to the surveillance state and bolstering its military prowess.

For her troubles, she was excluded from the pomp and personal intimacy accorded the French Jupiter by the Red Emperor. Clearly, the supreme leader in Beijing grasps that the relevant addresses of Europe are in Paris and Berlin, not Brussels.

How To Sort It All Out?

Macron’s vision of Europe as a third domain with “strategic autonomy” is a hopeful one. If unified as a major player, the Continent could mediate conflict between the U.S. and China, helping to stabilize global order in the 21st century instead of destabilize it as it did in the last century. But where to draw the line?

Not decoupling when it comes to trade and investment in machine tools, commercial aircraft or automobiles makes sense all around if over-dependency that could be leveraged against autonomy is avoided.

But when it comes to technologies that command data and control the flow of information that lay at the heart of the divergence with the core values of the West, or indirectly fuel the means of aggression against others, “strategic decoupling” in these sectors is justified.

It is one thing to try to impose the West’s model of governance on others, as the U.S.-led West arrogantly sought to do so often in the past. We should know by now that change only takes root in any society by those who own it, not through the intervention of outsiders. But it is another thing to knowingly supply oppressive regimes with the tools to do their dirty work out of narrow economic interest. 

The Shibboleth Of Tianxia

The ancient Chinese idea of “tianxia,” in which “all under heaven” just live and let live, is an appealing realist perspective on the face of it. In modern times, Beijing frames this approach as “mutual respect” for diverse ways of life in one multipolar world. But Xi can’t have it both ways by at the same time not condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, contravening the very cardinal principle he proclaims. 

This kind of double standard of the most powerful that ultimately eroded America’s credibility in the eyes of so many is already undermining the legitimacy of China’s claim to global leadership.

One cannot entirely discount that Xi’s bad bet on Putin’s hubris has placed China in a trap that tethers it to this one-off case of blatant aggression but does not signal its own approach to international relations. 

Although it has mostly gone without notice in West-centric circles, Xi unsettled his Kremlin friends by high-profile visits to former Soviet satellites in Central Asia worried about suffering the same fate as Ukraine and assuring them of China’s support. 

Last September in Almaty, he declared: “No matter how the international situation changes, we will continue to strongly support Kazakhstan in defending its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity … and oppose the interference of any forces in the internal affairs of your country.” Either these words are meaningless rhetoric or meant to be read between the lines in Moscow.

No Exit From The Labyrinth?

The differing shades of the continuum that Macron, Scholz and von der Leyen propose for a third way may well be best for Europe and the West as a whole. But what they all surely know is that maneuvering their way out of the labyrinth can’t, in the end, come at the expense of Ukraine. 

Conversely, though Xi seems to somehow believe he can craft simultaneous “partnerships” with Europe’s card-carrying members of the liberal world order and its main opponent in the same neighborhood, the one thing he can never abide is a Russian defeat in Ukraine.

It is not hard to conclude from this intersection of impossibilities that the present balancing act is not sustainable. Perhaps muddling through without clarity will in time succumb to its own entropy, and like the Cold War, end with a whimper instead of a bang. The other possibility is that there is no exit from the labyrinth without crashing through its confining corridors.