Media  Global Economy  2023.05.17

Growing mutual mistrust between the US, the EU, and China, with no way out in sight

The role of non-state actors in overcoming ideological conflicts among nations

The article was originally posted on JBpress on March 20, 2023

The U.S.A. China Europe

1. Deepening US-China rivalry

From the end of February, I visited Washington, D.C. and three other cities in the United States as well as Paris, Brussels, and elsewhere in Europe to interview experts in international politics and diplomacy. I asked them about their views on US-China relations, among other topics.

My earlier trip to the West in September 2022 came on the heels of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. At that time, US-China relations were seriously strained. Many experts were concerned about a Taiwan contingency.

Then came the US-China summit meeting in November 2022. The two leaders agreed to work to secure bilateral dialogue channels in order to deter an armed conflict over Taiwan. This agreement seemed to have temporarily stopped the deterioration of US-China relations.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken was preparing to visit China when a Chinese balloon intruded into US airspace. His planned visit to China was postponed.

To make matters worse, the suspicion that China was providing arms to Russia came to the surface. Current US-China relations are arguably at their worst since the end of World War Two.

The US is now stepping up its ideology-oriented stance. Views emotionally critical of China are more conspicuous than ever in the country.

Such mounting criticism reflects strong mistrust of China. Speaking about the prevailing views about China in Washington, D.C., an American expert on China told me the following:

“To exaggerate a bit, a majority of people in Washington, D.C. consider any action by China a political, economic, and diplomatic threat and regard all Chinese people in the US as spies.”

In this overwhelming mood in the capital, anti-Chinese sentiments tend to drown out cool-headed discussions.

Such a tendency is shown by the reaction to the balloon incident. This American expert on China gave me the following explanation:

“A close look at media reports in the US shows that the balloon was flying at an altitude of 60,000 feet. The air at this altitude was too thin for the balloon’s propeller to control the aircraft.

Besides, the wind velocity over the US was so fast – more than 160 kilometers per hour – that the reconnaissance camera was likely unable to capture clear pictures.”

“Yet these objective facts are ignored in Washington, D.C. now. Many people in the US capital maintain that China intentionally flew a balloon over the United States and photographed a US military base in Montana. They are fanning anti-Chinese sentiments.”

This explanation provides a snapshot of Washington, D.C. today, where very sober discussions based on objective evidence are viewed with hostility as far as China issues are concerned.

I realized that even outstanding experts in the US are swayed by such a mood.

2. Major EU countries distance themselves from the US in relation to China

The current administration of Joe Biden has been working to restore US relations with the EU countries – severely strained relations stemming from mutual mistrust under the former administration of Donald Trump. Improved relations are prompting some to point out that major EU countries share a gradually increasing part of US pessimism about China.

Yet even experts in the EU who hold such a view recognize that major EU countries look at China quite differently from the US even today.

Almost all the experts I interviewed in the EU emphasized that they draw a line at sharing views of their American counterparts who are leaning toward the hardline approach to China with a particular focus on the ideological conflict.

I can find very few of China experts in major EU countries who harbor emotional antagonism against China.

Rather, these experts generally stress that China continues to be a partner in addressing global issues.

An interview article illustrates such a European view of China.

This article was carried in the Japanese financial daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun on March 16. The newspaper conducted an exclusive interview with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz prior to his visit to Japan.

Scholz said, “China is an important state with great economic power. It is a partner, a competitor and systemic rival at the same time. There will be no decoupling. We will continue to work together.”

Such a view is not limited to Germany; it is shared by all the experts I interviewed in Paris and Brussels.

Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula Gertrud von der Leyen have been using the term “de-risking” when they refer to relations with China in their speeches and on other occasions.

The term symbolizes the stance major EU countries take in relation to China.

While decoupling represents the US’s aim to sever relations with China, de-risking characterizes these European countries’ basic stance of maintaining relations with China while reducing the associated risks they are aware of.

3. Mutual mistrust between the US and the EU

This difference in basic stance toward China between the US and the EU seems to partly reflect mutual mistrust between them.

Such a gap in perception is not clearly recognized in the US. Many American experts thus believe that experts in EU countries share Washington’s view and have been taking a hard stance on China since last year.

However, their perception proved to be wrong after I interviewed diplomats and experts in international politics in Europe. There certainly is a gap in perception between the US and the EU.

Brussels’ deep-seated mistrust of Washington, with which the EU shares the values of respecting democracy, has lingered since the Trump administration.

This fact is illustrated by a recent move by the US and the EU’s reaction to it.

The Biden administration decided to limit the scope of its subsidies for foreign corporations that wish to increase their investment in the US to those that do not use parts from other countries. This decision was made under the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which was enacted in August 2022.

The countries that are not subject to this rule are limited to Canada, Mexico, and South Korea among other countries that have concluded a free trade agreement (FTA) with the US. Japan and EU countries are now on par with China as far as this rule is concerned.

The EU opposed. To counteract the US’s subsidy policy under the IRA, Brussels set out a number of policies, including a set of environmental-related regulations centering on subsidizing businesses that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions (the Green Deal Industrial Plan).

These policies are primarily aimed at counteracting the US’s move.

In this way, frictions are becoming noticeable not only between the US and China and between the EU and China but also between the US and the EU. I hear some experts in Europe say that the implementation of these measures has put an end to the honeymoon between Brussels and the Biden administration.

All these recent developments point to growing mutual mistrust between the US, the EU, and China, three of the major global actors.

They are also concerns about the rising risk of destabilizing the future formation of the world order.

4. The mutual mistrust stems from adherence to ideology

Behind such mutual mistrust lies adherence to ideology.

Such concepts as democracy, capitalism, the market mechanism, and free competition are the values Western countries cherish the most in shaping the world order.

Moves to exclude countries that do not share these values are dividing the world. At the center of these moves is the US policy of decoupling from China.

And yet, capitalism and the market mechanism alone cannot bring peace and prosperity to the people of the world.

Continuing to pursue these values without taking social issues into full account will widen the gap between the rich and poor and allow employers to treat their employees like commodities.

These two maladies are widely recognized as representing the impasse of capitalism.

Adherence to the ideology of capitalism will destabilize democratic societies. Prioritizing capitalist logic will result in a divided society where workers are no longer respected as entities with individuality and personality and treated as commodities.

This is the very challenge facing the US and the UK in recent years. The Chinese government is well aware of this risk.

Governments in the world are taking measures to address this challenge but none of these measures has proved effective enough.

Adherence to ideology will deprive people of their attitude to respect each person’s individuality and personality, both of which constitute the background to social phenomena of various kinds.

If that comes to pass, people will come to stigmatize countries and organizations of their choice by giving them simplified labels without thinking about the diverse individuals who comprise them.

Once such a view becomes dominant in a community, the echo chamber effect will result. Cool-headed opinions will be drowned out. Views that deny all people in countries and organizations with different ideologies will overwhelm that community.

This seems to be what is happening in Washington, D.C. now.

Some analysts point out that such a mood is spreading to other cities in the US, which is a concern for future prospects.

5. Global networks of non-state actors help shape the world order

Having witnessed such a serious state of affairs in the US, I visited Brussels, where I came to know about the initiative of an international network of women academics that is trying to overcome ideological conflicts.

These women note that democracy is a concept that respects individuals and runs counter to capitalism if it treats workers as commodities.

They call for democratizing the labor market, stopping treating workers as commodities, and valuing the global environment.

These female scholars, many of whom are based in the West, are leading this international networking initiative called “Democratizing Work.”

At a glance, this seems to be an initiative that values a certain ideology.

Yet what they see as a problem is that the private sector that prefers capitalist logic disregards the personality of workers and the global environment, thereby giving rise to various problems.

This challenge faces not only the West but also Japan, China, and Russia regardless of ideological differences.

The Democratizing Work initiative is aimed at rescuing workers and natural environments all over the world beyond ideological conflicts.

It calls on workers whose personality and individuality are denied by capitalist logic and people who want to save natural environments to take the initiative to come together beyond national borders.

A brief look at recent international relations suggests that mistrust is growing between the US, China, and the EU to the extent that there seems to be no way out.

Leaders of countries, who should be taking on this challenge at the international level, fail to exercise their diplomatic leadership owing to their waning political power base at home or their lack of experience in diplomacy.

Under these circumstances, political leaders of countries are no longer dependable when it comes to stabilizing the world order. This task is increasingly undertaken by global networks, the formation of which has been facilitated by new communication technologies such as the Internet – a fact attested to by the above-mentioned group of female academics.

The mere act of decrying the current mutual mistrust between the US, the EU, and China will not change anything.

It is inappropriate to give up the idea of addressing challenges facing the global community such as the impasse of capitalism and global environmental issues simply because leaders of countries will not take the initiative. It is important for global citizens to take voluntary action out of their sense of ownership based on conscience and responsibility.

Ever increasing numbers of people participating in initiatives undertaken by non-state actors is improving the prospect that challenges that cannot be overcome by agreements among nations will be successfully addressed.

People in the 22nd century should see the first half of the 21st century as the advent of an era when, with the development of a wired society, non-state actors’ initiatives based on their morals helped shape the world order, through global networking, without recourse to the rules that build on agreements among nations.