Thursday

13th May 2021

Opinion

Biden's 'Age of Aquarius'? Mars and Venus will clash over China

With its promise of new beginnings, Joe Biden's presidency is the perfect start to a new Age of Aquarius.

As he begins to heal a deeply-fractured nation, tackle rising pandemic rates and – at least according to hopes in Brussels – set about repairing damaged transatlantic relations, America's new leader will need the help of a kind cosmos.

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  • Badly needed is a grown-up playbook on how Biden, Brussels, Beijing and Berlin will interact in the coming years

Especially since the latter task, it is feared, has been sabotaged by Europe's perfidy in clinching an investment deal with China behind America's back.

Yes, clueless Europe has once again been fooled into doing a dirty deal by crafty Asians.

It was all said by Robert Kagan almost 20 years ago: the US is macho 'Mars' and the EU is soft-power 'Venus'.

And the patriarchy wins, obviously.

The claims do make perfect sense – in yesterday's world.

Today's reality is a tad more complicated. Mars is tired and damaged by its "forever wars" and difficult #MeToo moments, Venus is pretty sassy and the planets will be interacting in a very transformed universe.

The old and tired transatlantic script, embedded in simplistic one-dimensional narratives, must therefore be renewed. Badly needed is a grown-up playbook on how Biden, Brussels, Beijing and Berlin will interact in the coming years.

But where to begin? Some insights gleaned over years [as EU correspondent for the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review and Asia director at the Friends of Europe think tank] of keeping track of EU-Asia relations and their inevitable American entanglements may prove useful.

Washington's dazzling security-dominated Asian engagement may get all the attention but the EU has done a pretty good job of hammering out its own Asia policy over the last few years.

Once considered too far, too big and too poor to interest EU policymakers (and many European academics), Asia has gradually moved to the centre of the EU agenda. And it is going to stay there.

It was the thrilling take-off of Southeast Asia's 'tiger economies' in the late 1980s and China's opening up a few years later that drove Europeans to try and grab a piece of the region's economic cake.

It worked.

Anxious to balance their over-dependence on America and Japan, Asians responded enthusiastically to the EU's overtures and, among other initiatives, Asia Europe Meetings (ASEM) were established to bring European and Asian states closer together.

But America, with its own Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, was kept out.

Asian rebound

Transatlantic competition in Asia was the game then, and will intensify as China and other Asian nations rebound after the pandemic induced slowdown.

American and European businesses will continue to fight tooth-and-nail over the region's projects, investments and markets while their governments jostle for prestige and influence.

And just as they did when Barack Obama tried – unsuccessfully - to prevent EU governments from joining China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), European policymakers will get ever better at standing up for their interests.

Far from being naïve about developments in China and Asia, Europeans will keep trying to get a handle on the future.

The EU-China investment deal, along with the economic partnership pact with Japan, the strategic partnership clinched with ASEAN end of last year, as well as the free trade accords with South Korea, Vietnam and Singapore - and others planned with Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand - will connect the EU to members of the trade-expanding Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation (RCEP) and the Comprehensive TransPacific Partnership deal, both of which the US has stepped away from.

And while US hard power will certainly continue to matter for countries in the region, as the RCEP and China's BRI reach deep into countries across Asia (and Africa and Latin America), the real struggle will be about who gets to set standards, rules and regulations for, inter alia, global trade, connectivity and data exchanges.

Currently derided as capitulation to Beijing, with access to the Chinese market likely to get tougher under president Xi Jinpeng's "dual circulation" plan, the EU's investment deal with China could morph into a must-mimic trendsetter.

Transatlantic convergence on China is necessary but will remain especially elusive. The Biden administration will continue to view Beijing as a strategic adversary even if the bellicose rhetoric is dialled down.

Brussels and Berlin, meanwhile, will pursue their own roller coaster China policy marked by discord over Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the treatment of domestic dissidents but also cooperation on climate change, health and global economic revival.

China's rise will keep Europe on its toes, accelerating the EU drive to draw up "autonomous" measures such as foreign investment screening, action on distorting foreign subsidies, and "due diligence" work on setting strict global supply chain standards.

Going forward, plans to reinforce the euro and an upcoming EU policy paper on priority actions in an "inclusive" Indo-Pacific region - rather than one that deliberately excludes China - will probably cause more breathless American reactions.

Still there is room for hope.

With transformation set to be the hallmark of 2021, lucid American and European policymakers could strive for and find much-needed common ground.

Mars and Venus could learn from each other. Their strife may not, after all, be written in the stars.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. She also teaches Europe-Asia relations as visiting professor at the College of Europe.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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