Which country has already suffered the greatest losses through the new U.S. strategy announced a year-and-a-half ago by President Donald Trump?
Clearly not Russia, whose relations with Washington were far from perfect even under the previous U.S. administration. Nor is it Mexico or Canada: even Trump is unable to turn the tables on the United States’ relations with its closest neighbours so rapidly and radically. With the exception of Iran, Syria, Cuba and the other habitual targets of U.S. attacks, Germany and China have the most reason to be unhappy with the current U.S. policy.
Trump has been applying particularly strong pressure on Berlin and Beijing; the two countries’ current and, more importantly, potential losses from America’s protectionist stance far exceed the losses of all the other US trading partners combined. In addition, Washington has a serious political axe to grind with Germany and China. Berlin is being chided for its “insufficient contribution” to the NATO budget and its unswerving commitment to the Nord Stream II gas pipeline, whereas Beijing is suspected of “hegemonic aspirations” in the Asia-Pacific and of its attempted “expansion” into the Indian Ocean.
If talking common sense, Chancellor Merkel and President Xi would be better off keeping closer to each other: they stand a better chance of weathering the pressure from the United States as a united front than on their own. Given the two countries’ impressive combined potential, the transcontinental Berlin–Beijing axis could become a worthy strategic response to the unprecedentedly strong and brutal U.S. pressure, even more so if this alliance secures the support of several other major countries between the Brandenburg Gate and Tiananmen Square. Including Moscow, which has its own agenda.
How likely is such a new alliance to emerge in the foreseeable future? What are the potential opportunities and limitations of a rapprochement between Germany and China? What consequences would increased cooperation between the two countries have for Russia? The answers to these questions are critical not only to the future of the Eurasian space, but also to the fate of the new world order as a whole.
The Chinese Groom and the German Bride
The Berlin–Beijing axis first manifested itself as a possibility immediately after the new president took office in the United States. Trump’s electoral victory raised serious concerns in China, and came as a true shock to the German political establishment. Symptomatically, on the eve of the G20 summit in Hamburg in July 2017, Trump paid a demonstrative visit to Warsaw at the precise moment that Germany–Poland relations were experiencing yet another dip. Coincidentally or not, Merkel was rolling out the red carpet for Xi Jinping in Berlin. Six months prior to that, China had been announced as Germany’s largest trading partner for 2016 for the first time in history.
Beijing’s interest in Berlin is not confined to China’s desire to further expand bilateral trade, boost investment and secure access to the latest German technology. With the new U.S. administration in power, the Chinese government is looking for ways to demonstrate its increased concern for the global problems Germany worries about, from climate change and WTO reforms to assistance to African countries. The Chinese leadership’s traditional statements as to the importance of free trade, the dangers of protectionism, the advantages of multilateral approaches and the need to adhere to the common rules of the game (Xi Jinping’s keynote address in Davos, Switzerland in January 2017 is one example) are primarily intended for Berlin’s ears.
It is hardly surprising that in the emerging romance between China and Germany, Beijing plays the role of the decisive and persistent young man, whereas Berlin is the wary and calculating girl eager to gain the most from the potential relationship. To begin with, China is much stronger than Germany in terms of its economic and demographic potential, geopolitical position and military might. China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and also possesses nuclear arms. In other words, China is a full-blown major power, whereas Germany right now is not. Therefore, any relationship between the two countries will inevitably be asymmetric, with the balance tipped in China’s favour, and this asymmetry will need to be compensated for in one way or another.
Second, China has greater room for manoeuvre in the international political arena than Germany. Currently, the country is not a party to any rigid politico-military or economic blocs; BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, these amorphous and barely binding associations, are beside the point here. Germany, for its part, has numerous fairly tangible obligations within NATO and the European Union. Berlin may be the driver of the European Union, but within NATO it often finds itself playing supporting roles. To continue with the romantic parallels, China the young man is single and free, whereas the girl is bound by close ties with numerous and often quite demanding European relatives, and is unwilling to sacrifice these ties under any circumstances. Whether the existence of “relatives” gives Germany extra bargaining chips in its contacts with China or actually weakens its position is a moot question, but the significance of this factor should not be underestimated.
Third, potential rapprochement is being hindered by the fundamental differences in values. It is difficult to build a strong relationship of trust if one of the partners has a conservative religious background and the other is an inveterate atheist. Germany today is perhaps the leading vector of traditional liberal values, not just in Europe but in the whole world. China’s political model of authoritarian modernization, for its part, is the exact opposite of Western liberalism. Predictions to the effect that the emergence of a middle class in China would inevitably result in the country drifting towards Western-style pluralistic democracy have so far been proven wrong. If anything, China appears to be drifting in the opposite direction.
Fourth, the Berlin Fräulein already has a young man, one that has for decades remained her key partner, protector and, to a great extent, an indisputable authority and guru. That young man lives in Washington. Germany and the United States have had their share of misunderstandings and even quarrels over the years; suffice it to recall Berlin’s resolute opposition to the U.S. intervention in Iraq back in 2003. Yet, until very recently, very few in Germany could picture their country’s future outside the close military, political and economic alliance with the United States. Remove that support, and the entire structure of Germany’s foreign policy would collapse in no time.
This last argument needs to be addressed in greater detail. It would be fair to say that in all of its long and sometimes dramatic post-World War II history, Berlin has never been exposed to attacks, threats, blatant pressure and even blackmail on the part of Washington on a scale similar to what has been going on in the past 18 months. Never before have the views of the leaders of the two countries been so far apart and the level of mutual trust so low.
One could, of course, argue that Trump will eventually go and the American people will remain. However, it was these same American people that elected Trump as their president in the first place in November 2016, albeit not unanimously. In fact, Trump’s popularity in America appears to be growing rather than declining. Whatever the case, it is obvious that Berlin will continue to suffer from the political and psychological consequences of the current transatlantic relations crisis long after the current president leaves the White House. The bilateral relations are not going to return to what they were during the times of the Obama administration any time soon, despite the hopes of German politicians and intellectuals with their orthodox Atlantic world view.
Five Lessons in Seduction
As we can see, China is to play the leading role in the emerging rapprochement. How can Beijing possibly dispel Berlin’s doubts as to the purity of its intentions? What price would the Chinese leadership have to pay for this? Let us take a closer look at Berlin’s main fears.
First, Berlin is extremely uncomfortable with Chinese investors methodically buying German businesses that specialize in the most promising sectors of technological development. Germany suspects that China is driven by more than just commercial interests; that it is, in fact, pursuing a national strategy aimed at gaining a technological advantage over the West in general and Germany in particular by the end of next decade. China invested nearly $14 billion in Germany in 2017, or almost two-thirds of its total investments in Europe.
Germany became aware of the potential threat. In 2018, Berlin partially nationalized one of the country’s largest power grid operators in order to prevent Chinese investors from buying into it. Preventive measures were also taken with regard to a major German hi-tech machine-tool specialist company that resulted in a potential Chinese buyer being forced to abandon its plans. These steps evidently contradict the general principles of Germany’ foreign trade policy, and would have been impossible just a few years ago (Russia’s Sberbank did fail to buy Opel at some point in the past, but then the deal fell through due to the position of General Motors, the U.S. owner of the German car maker).
What could China do in this respect? The most logical solution would be to provide for maximum possible reciprocity by granting German investors unhindered access to the hi-tech sector of the Chinese economy. This remains a problematic topic: China’s hi-tech sector is still largely impenetrable to foreigners. Greater transparency of business practices and a consistent fight against corruption would also raise Germany’s trust in Chinese investors. Beijing is sure to find these steps to be quite difficult and even risky, but a serious relationship with Berlin is bound to come at a price.
Second, Germany is concerned about the possibility of the balance of its trade with China changing dramatically in the coming years. Unlike the United States, Germany currently enjoys a significant surplus in trade with Beijing: exports stood at $96 billion in 2017, and imports amounted to $71 billion. Some fear, however, that the recently unleashed trade war between the United States and China may prompt Beijing to switch a significant portion of its exports to Europe, including Germany, which has the most capacious market in Europe. As a result, Germany could not just lose its current surplus, but would eventually find itself in a situation similar to that in which the United States currently finds itself.
These fears are justified: sooner or later, Beijing will ask Berlin to balance out bilateral trade. It would of course be a grave mistake to do so in the style of Trump, i.e., by twisting Germany’s arm. Quite on the contrary, the Chinese leadership has a great opportunity to demonstrate how different its balancing-out methods are from those used by the United States.
Furthermore, if the full-scale U.S.–China trade war eventually breaks out, Beijing could invite Germany to replace the United States as an exporter to the Chinese market. Germany already exports about twice as many cars to China as the United States, but U.S. exports are still significant at about 10 per cent of the market. China could discuss this opportunity with its German partners.
Third, Germany is rightly irritated by Beijing’s activity in Berlin’s “backyard” – that is, in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. One particular irritant for Berlin is the 16+1 cooperation mechanism created by China for these countries, which involves regular meetings at the highest level. This format is perceived in Germany as China attempting to undermine European unity and gain backdoor access to the European Union. First, because the format involves 11 EU member states alongside five non-aligned countries of the Western Balkans. Second, because the 16+1 mechanism gets to discuss, among other things, issues pertaining to the EU remit (infrastructure development, e-commerce, etc.). An additional vexing point for Berlin was the fact that the latest 16+1 summit took place just several days before the July 2018 EU–China summit.
One could, of course, dismiss Germany’s suspicions and fears as being unreasonable and even hypocritical. After all, Germany consistently opposes any “privileged interests” in Europe and promotes all countries’ sovereign right to choose their partners and cooperation formats. Should Beijing resort to such rhetoric, it would doubtlessly earn a standing applause from Moscow. It is, however, hardly in China’s best strategic interest to ignore Germany’s fears, no matter how unfounded: Berlin is more important to Beijing as a potential strategic partner than all of Central Europe and the Balkans. So, if the road to Berlin lies through Brussels, then Beijing will take it.
Beijing has already made token concessions to the European Union: in future, 16+1 summits will be held once every two years and not annually as before. The Chinese leadership has been consistent in stating unequivocally that Beijing is interested in a unified European Union. Beijing has been careful not to support Eurosceptics, populists, right-wing radicals and other marginal forces within the European Union. Yet China could do even better, such as offering Berlin a joint China–Europe development programme for the Western Balkans in order to refute any suspicions about a possible hidden agenda on the part of China that is aimed at “infiltrating” this very important European region.
Fourth, in assessing the advantages and disadvantages of closer cooperation with Beijing, Berlin naturally wonders how this rapprochement would affect its relations with other Asian partners: Japan, India, the ASEAN countries, Australia, New Zealand, etc. It would certainly be extremely short-sighted of Germany to sacrifice these relations or even give its historic Asian friends a reason to doubt its strategic political priorities.
It is, therefore, in Beijing’s best interests to promote the potential Sino-German axis not as a stand-alone bilateral geo-economic project, let alone a geopolitical one, but rather as an important component of a broader multilateral plan aimed at creating a single Eurasian economic space. The implementation of this plan should prompt individual Asian countries to gradually forget about their bilateral disagreements in the face of the common long-term development targets. It would be too foolhardy of Beijing to seek Berlin’s direct support for its stance on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, or to prompt Germany to side with China in its conflict with India.
Fifth, the most difficult obstacle to closer cooperation between China and Germany is the current gulf between Germany’s liberal political system and China’s authoritarian one. No sane politician in Berlin can possibly overlook the human rights violations in China, neglect the fate of Chinese dissidents, turn a blind eye to the discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, ignore the existing restrictions on the dissemination of information and many other manifestations of Chinese authoritarianism. These values have always been and will continue to be a bone of contention in bilateral relations.
However, just because a fundamental solution of the values problem cannot be reached does not mean no progress is possible in this respect. China’s symbolic concessions with regard to individual dissidents are absolutely important (in the latest such development, Liu Xia, the widow of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, was permitted to travel to Germany). It appears to be of even greater import, however, for the two countries to develop contacts along the lines of civil society, education, culture, youth and women’s organizations. For this to happen, China needs to turn Germany into a “fashion,” so as to change the Chinese public’s perception of the West as being primarily associated with the United States.
Why is Trump Not Afraid?
Even the remote and purely hypothetical possibility of a China–Germany alliance should be the cause of great concern for any serious politician in Washington. There is hardly any other geo-economic combination on the planet capable of posing such a threat to the United States, this key economic, financial, scientific and technological centre of the modern world. History teaches us that a war against two strong adversaries at once can rarely be won. A China–Germany alliance, even a short-lived one, should appear particularly threatening to the current U.S. administration, which is in the habit of assessing international challenges primarily from the standpoint of America’s short-term economic interests.
Is Trump afraid of a trade and economic war on two fronts? He appears not to be. If he were afraid, he would be behaving somewhat differently. At the very least, he would be more tactful and understanding with regard to one of his oldest and most reliable European allies. So far, however, quite the opposite is true. It seems at times that the President of the United States is actually pushing the German bride into the embraces of the Chinese groom. Such shocking behaviour needs some rational explaining.
Some of Trump’s political opponents tend to explain the President’s behaviour as manifestations of his personality quirks. In their opinion, he is simply unable to keep a comprehensive picture of the world in his mind, nor does he want to think strategically. Therefore, the reasoning goes, Trump views the United States’ relations with Germany and China as separate and unrelated prongs of America’s foreign policy. He does not give a though to the possible consequences for the Germany–China relations of America’s growing pressure on Beijing and Berlin.
Another explanation of the Trump administration’s policy can be described as “the presumption to power of the United States”: the White House is closely monitoring the progress of the attempted Germany–China rapprochement, but does not believe that it will succeed. The United States’ relations with both Germany and China remain asymmetric: the latter two are more dependent on the United States than the other way around. The White House may be under the impression that even if Berlin and Beijing unite efforts, they will still be unable to create a global financial, economic and technological centre that would be independent from Washington. Furthermore, neither China nor Germany has dared so far to resort to symmetric measures in response to the latest bouts of U.S. economic pressure. Therefore, the White House has no cause for concern, at least not in the foreseeable future.
The third and, in our opinion, most convincing explanation is that the Trump administration is simply incapable of imagining that German politicians are prepared to revise their views on the world, and of Germany’s desirable place in that world. U.S. political circles have long grown used to the periodic outbursts of anti-American sentiment in Germany; these outbursts are not perceived as posing any serious threat to the U.S.–Germany alliance for as long as they do not affect the German political establishment. This was the case during the German anti-war movement in the late 1970s and the early 1980s and during George W. Bush’s presidency. History may yet repeat itself under Trump, too.
One thing is obvious, however: Trump is applying much greater pressure on Germany than his Republican predecessors. The United States is making a show of demeaning not just the current German leadership, but the German political class as a whole, precisely when marginal German nationalism is beginning to awaken from its protracted slumber (as evidenced by the success of the Alternative for Germany party in the latest election). The combination of the imminent systemic crisis in Germany’s domestic politics and the loss of reliable international support in the form of the transatlantic partnership could create the prerequisites for an “ideal storm” in German politics with most unpredictable consequences.
The cockiness with which the current American leadership is treating Germany may eventually result in something similar to what Moscow got in exchange for its arrogance towards Berlin. Such a comparison might be farfetched, but we believe that it merits attention.
Russia had long believed that its “special relationship” with Germany would remain no matter what. Moscow was banking on the Germans’ “historical guilt” over the country’s role in World War II, and expected Berlin to never forget the role Russia had played in Germany’s unification. There were hopes for the rapid development of bilateral trade and economic cooperation, including with Germany’s leading major businesses.
Busy with all these calculations and hopes, Moscow overlooked the moment when it lost its erstwhile status as Berlin’s “privileged partner”; Germany stopped being an unconditional lobbyist for Russia’s interests in the Euro-Atlantic community. Moscow equally overlooked the moment of the generational change in German politics, with a new generation of leaders emerging in the political arena for whom the World War II and even the unification of Germany were nothing more than mere episodes in the country’s centuries of dramatic history.
It would of course be oversimplifying things to draw direct parallels between Germany’s Ostpolitik, which has long disappeared, and its modern, still fairly viable Atlanticism. Fidelity to Atlantic unity has always run much deeper in German society than its adherence to “Eastern politics” and Berlin’s willingness to maintain the “special relationship” with Moscow. Still, the Trump administration could benefit from looking at Russia’s experience, which is something that it is obviously not doing. Therefore, even without China factored in, it is obvious that the risks for the transatlantic partnership continue to grow.
An Axis or a Triangle?
Unfortunately, Russia does not appear to be in a position to play a leading part in the new game that is beginning to unravel in Eurasia. Its economic potential is too limited, and its positions in the emerging Eurasian interdependence system are too weak. On the other hand, Russia cannot afford to stay on the outside, since its future will largely depend on the outcome of the emerging confrontation of the Unites States with Germany and China.
The successful development of cooperation between Germany and China would be beneficial to Moscow, if only because it would deprive Washington of its current monopoly to determining the fundamental rules of the game in the global economy. There is very little hope that relations between Washington and Moscow will improve any time soon; for as long as the United States gets to dictate the rules, Russia will be consistently ousted to the periphery of the world economy. There is also the constant threat of extraterritorial U.S. sanctions, as illustrated by Iran.
In the meantime, China and Germany are Moscow’s main trade partners and are likely to retain this status for a long time. In fact, economic ties with Beijing and Berlin remain complementary for Russia: the countries are Moscow’s main points of entry into the global economy. It would, therefore, be entirely logical for Russia to feel enthusiastic about the possibility of taking part in the creation of the Berlin–Beijing axis and attempting to turn it into an equilateral triangle.
It should be noted that Russia has no interest whatsoever in the destruction of the present liberal world economic order, whose protection is to serve as the foundation of the China–Germany rapprochement. This, despite the fact that the term “liberalism” has recently acquired strong negative connotations within Russia. Just like any other participant in the international economic system, Moscow may have its problems with some aspects of this world order. However, excessive protectionism, the abandonment of multilateralism, the decline of universal international economic organizations and the world splitting into opposing trade blocs would do nothing to help Russia integrate into the global economy; nor will they facilitate the country’s economic modernization.
The opportunity to integrate into the China–Germany cooperation processes would provide Moscow with additional room for manoeuvre, enabling it to offset the “turn to the East” by a re-activation of contacts with the West. In the long run, the China–Germany axis could turn into one of the pillars of the “Greater Eurasia” concept, which has been actively discussed in Moscow of late.
However, a rapprochement between Germany and China per se would not automatically generate new opportunities for Russia. Beijing may well stick to its long-standing practice of pursuing parallel political courses in its relations with Moscow and Berlin. Germany in the current situation would certainly prefer to develop cooperation with China without involving Russia, which has only been creating problems for Berlin – at the very least until the Ukrainian crisis has been truly resolved. It is, therefore, extremely important for Moscow to not become the odd man out in the China–Germany alliance, and to contribute its unique advantages to the axis.
These advantages should certainly go beyond Russia’s geographical situation: there are plenty of transit options between China and Germany, not all of them passing through Russian territory. Moscow should, therefore, look for different kinds of opportunities, such as tripartite development projects for the Balkans, Central Asia and Afghanistan. Other opportunities could include initiatives that would marry security to development, such as migration management, the prevention of political radicalism and addressing the challenges associated with new technologies. In any eventuality, Russia’s value for both Germany and China will be largely defined by its ability to shift from the current inertial economic model to an innovative one.
In addition, as was already mentioned, no separate Russian or Chinese policy with regard to Germany can exist out of the broader EU context. Neither the United States, nor China, nor Russia will replace the European Union at the centre of Germany’s universe. Therefore, Moscow cannot expect to be on good terms with Germany while simultaneously being on bad terms with the European Union. Just like with China, the road to Berlin for Russia inevitably runs through Brussels. So, this road needs to be taken, no matter how long, winding and difficult it may turn out to be.
There may be different opinions about the chances the potential China–Germany alliance has to succeed. It is possible that an alternative geo-economic structure will emerge instead, such as a Berlin–Tokyo axis or a close partnership between the European Union and India. It appears indisputable, however, that the major actors in the global political arena are now required to make major, non-orthodox and perhaps even paradoxical decisions.
So far, most of these actors have been biding their time, hedging emerging political risks, carefully calculating the balances of group interests, maintaining the status quo and hoping that the situation would somehow rectify itself, solely on the strength of their having chosen “the right side of the barricades.” This is perhaps how Roman aristocrats behaved towards the end of the Empire.
Trump is not one of them. He is often rightly accused of being unprofessional, impulsive, lacking in strategic vision and of many other sins. That said, he is actually trying to solve the United States’ global problems rather than postponing them until the next term in office or not passing them on to the next generations. In other words, Trump is a man of action, a trait rarely to be found in the contemporary world. For this reason, until other leaders in Europe and Asia begin to demonstrate a similar capacity, Trump will always have, at the very least, an important tactical advantage over his opponents.
First published in our partner RIAC
Ммm is a new trend in the interaction between the EU and Turkey:”Silence is golden” or Musical chair?
On April 6, a protocol collapse occurred during a meeting between President of Turkey R. Erdogan, President of the European Council S. Michel and head of the European Commission, Ur. von der Leyen. Let us remind you that during their meeting in the conference room she did not have enough chair, and she was forced to sit on the sofa opposite the Turkish Foreign Minister M. Çavuşoğlu, who, according to the diplomatic protocol, occupies a lower rank. This incident (a video showing the confusion of Ur. von der Leyen and her mmm sound, which was cleverly picked up by the media) quickly spread across the media and social networks. This incident provoked not only a number of high-profile comments, but also political and economic consequences for a number of countries.
This story is a double bottom box. On the one hand, there is a protocol error in the organization of the meeting between the EU and Turkey. On the other hand, there is a sharp statement by the Italian head of state about the Turkish president.
We propose to consider this case from two points of view: violation of the protocol and bilateral interaction between Italy and Turkey.
Let’s start with the protocol. Based on the general rules of the protocol, let’s honestly answer the following questions.
1) is it right for the head of state to give up a seat opposite the national flag (respect for the symbols of the state);
2) what is more important – position, diplomatic rank or gender;
3) Who should take the “EU chair” based on the political hierarchy of the Union – the head of the European Council or the European Commission?
Note that both sides – the EU and Turkey – blame each other’s protocol service. EU protocol chief Dominique Marro responded in a statement on Thursday that diplomats were not given access to the conference room in advance because, as they were told, “it was too close to Erdogan’s office.” Turkish officials have agreed to a separate request to add seating for von der Leyen during the reception, he said.
Turkey was accused of “protocol machism.” However, the officials of the protocol services of Turkey and the EU “met before the official visit of the heads, and their wishes were taken into account,” says Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu.
But the shifting of responsibility continues. Brussels insisted that staff were denied a final check of the press conference room. It was soon revealed that another sensational accident was threatened during the official dinner: the table was laid for 5 people on each side, and in front there were two honorary chairs, one for Michel and the other for Erdogan, while a smaller one was reserved for von der Leyen, to the right of Michel. Two diplomatic advisers accompanied Michel to the table, and von der Leyen was left alone.
Michel was also criticized for not standing up for her. He first wrote an explanation on his Facebook page, in which he did not apologize, but presented his vision of the situation. But as things continued to escalate on Thursday, he went on to say on Belgian TV LN24: “I deeply regret the image created and the impression of a kind of disdain for the President of the European Commission and women in general.” “At that moment I was convinced that any reaction could seem paternalistic. Perhaps it was my mistake, ”he said. “In addition, there was substantial work to be done at the meeting, and I was convinced that the response would lead to a much more serious incident that would affect relations with Turkey.” An interesting commentary by J.K. Juncker, who wrote that he also often found himself on the couch (thereby making it clear that the situation was not critical). This situation could be resolved through diplomatic channels. But, unfortunately, it has received an unusual development.
Now let’s move on to a political analysis.
According to the head of the group of socialists in the European Parliament Garcia Perez Irace, the incident is related to discrimination against women in Turkey. A few weeks ago, on March 20, the president passed a decree authorizing Turkey’s withdrawal from the 2011 Istanbul Convention against Violence against Women, which obliges the governments that have joined it to pass legislation aimed at combating domestic violence. That is, the protocol error received a political color and took on a new light from the perspective of gender politics. However, one should not forget about the cultural and religious differences between the parties to the conflict. It is curious that if Michel gave up the chair to Ursula, he could be criticized from the point of view of gender equality and even, if hypertrophied, accused of sexism. It is also worth paying attention to the absence of harsh statements from the EU, which is interested in Turkey, which restrains the flow of migrants. . Yet the crisis in terms of maritime borders with Greece and Cyprus and the agreement between Israel, Greece, Egypt and Cyprus for the construction of the EastMed gas pipeline have become such important concerns for Turkish interests that in February 2020 Ankara has re-proposed the usual blackmail and once again opening the borders with Greece for Syrian migrants, provoking an immediate European reaction. Since last December, the European Commission has tried relentlessly to mend the tear, unlocking the last tranche of aid to Ankara, equal to 780 million euros of the 6 billion promised, and opening the dialogue for future billion-dollar agreements with Erdoğan in migration theme.
The behavior of M. Draghi seems even more inexplicable. The statement by the head of the Italian government M. Draghi, where he allowed himself to call Erdogan a dictator, cost the country 70 million euros of suspended contracts (the purchase of 10 helicopters from an Italian company Leonardo). In turn, Erdogan is waiting for an official apology from M. Draghi. Whatever the situation, from the point of view of etiquette and protocol, such statements by officials are perceived as inappropriate. There are now 48 large Italian private equity companies in Turkey, such as Unicredit, Generali, Mps, Fiat, Ansaldo Energia and others.On the other hand, according to representatives of Mediobanca Securities, it is unlikely that this diplomatic incident will lead to the cancellation of the contract with Turkey. Moreover, the investment bank added: “This is a relatively small contract for Leonardo: it represents 0.5% of the group’s planned ordering for 2021”, which amounts to approximately 14 billion euros.
This is not the first crisis in Italian-Turkish relations. In ’98 the Ocalan crisis, during the D’Alema government produced violent reactions and a boycott of Italian products in Turkey, however quickly overcome by the subsequent Amato government and even more so by the Berlusconi government starting from 2001. Those were the years of the great contracts for Salini Impregilo’s new bridges over the Bosphorus, for supplies by the Finmeccanica group and the purchase of local banks by Unicredit. But, between ups and downs, the history of economic relations between Rome and Ankara came from afar, from the 1960s when large Italian groups such as Fiat, Pirelli, Cementir had focused heavily on Turkey as the ideal platform to conquer new markets in the eastern Mediterranean.
In fact, the dispute between Turkey and Italy stems from tensions in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean over gas fields. And the European Union could play a key role in supporting Rome, but at the moment none of the EU representatives supported M. Draghi’s words, only Italian populist parties supported the head of state (which had also previously expressed the idea of leaving the EU).
Against the background of all the facts sounded, the behavior of the head of Italy remains the most interesting case. Non-fatal, in its essence, the protocol incident provoked a verbal dive by Draghi and Erdogan, which could cost Rome tens of millions of euros in direct economic losses. But it is not this separate fact that is interesting, but the fact that Italian politicians have recently taken a number of drastic steps and statements that have no reliable explanation. It is appropriate here to recall the spy scandal with Russian diplomats, which could be interpreted as a decrease in the level of interaction between Italy and its longtime trusted partner. Then many assumed that this was a manifestation of the “Atlanticist course” and the rapprochement with the United States of the new cabinet of ministers. But in the situation with the chair, we are talking about a conflict with one of the active members of NATO and a key ally of Washington in the region. And here Draghi’s position evokes the very remark of W. von der Leyen – “ummm” – bewilderment that runs like a red thread through the entire incident and its consequences. What is it? An attempt to show Draghi’s political subjectivity and consistency? A demonstrative rupture of the achievements and economic ties of predecessors in order to prove their independence? Agreements with Washington pending new contracts and cooperation programs and acting in line with these hopes? Or maybe just a misunderstanding of what the Italian people expect from the next prime minister and this is an attempt to find something that will cause an increase in the level of confidence on the part of the Italian political forces? In any case, there is concern that if Draghi continues in this vein, his reign may prove even more inglorious than that of many of his predecessors.
The Man Who Warned Us First About Climate Change
Among the first to warn us of global warming, he used the term greenhouse gas to describe the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. That was in the 1960s and it was dismissed as a cranky notion. Where he lived, he had a large study lined with books which he actually read; perhaps one reason for the mushrooming of ideas.
The story begins in Corfu, Greece where he was born. His very prominent family was turfed out of the country and settled in France. After early schooling, he was sent to a private boarding school in the UK.
Founded by German-Jewish educator Kurt Hahn in 1934, Gordonstoun School was new with new ideas when he attended. An equal emphasis on mind and body, it challenged students mentally and physically, the latter far more than at other such private schools. A strapping boy who was also extremely intelligent, he loved the place — later his son was to hate it. Hahn wrote of him that he would do very well any task assigned to him.
He went on to the naval academy and finished at the top of his class, doing the same at later naval exams and becoming the youngest Lieutenant in the navy. Given command of a ship, he ran it like clockwork but a certain lack of sensitivity to others also came through: the crew were driven ragged and hated serving under him. He loved the navy and always loved the sea; indeed it was a sacrifice to give up his naval career when he married but it was incompatible in his new role for his wife was a very important personage.
Studying in England, I could not fail to notice his frequent presence on newspaper front pages, even though my own interests then did not focus on the news of the day. He seemed to set up awards for all kinds of excellence. He wanted British industry to shine, young people to deliver their best and so on. And of course, he was invariably presenting awards to the winners.
A sportsman, he was also out there playing polo with his team, or at equestrian meets or playing cricket at charity events, or sailing which he clearly loved. His uncle saw India through a hurried independence and a bloody partition. Uncle Dickie, as he was called by the royal children, was a valued presence until killed by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in a senseless bomb attack that lost them public sympathy.
The country’s leaders kept him busy and he was sent to numerous countries representing the queen, most often to former colonies in an era with a rash of newly independent countries. Yes, his name was Philip, titled Prince of Greece and Denmark, and his wife was Queen Elizabeth II.
Prince Philip’s royal bloodline (like the Queen’s) was German — Battenberg the family last name having been changed to Mountbatten during the First World War. His sisters married Germans and remained in Germany during the Second World War. They were not invited to his wedding to a very much in love Princess Elizabeth. He had been the longest serving consort of any British monarch when he died a few days ago.
Prince Philip’s travels were also notorious for gaffes and his eye for attractive females — middle class morality be damned. A definite lacuna in sensitivity was more than evident. Meeting a group of Nigerians resplendent in their long colorful national dress, he remarked, “Ready for bed, are we?” to their embarrassment.
Yet, all in all, a very full life.
Sino-Serbian relations under the “microscope”: China’s footprint In Serbia
Over the years, the Sino-Serbian foreign relations have straightened to a very high level, with China establishing itself as a valuable ally to Serbia. Since the recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 by Yugoslavia and the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between the two states in 1955, both countries have been on warm relations that soon transformed into a strategic alliance. However, this relationship has given an uneasy feeling to the political elite in the West that sees this relationship as China’s efforts to expand its influence into the Balkan region and undermine the efforts of the EU for stabilization. On the other hand, some may argue that this uneasy feeling that the West is experiencing is due to its own failures of constant neglect and poor leadership towards Serbia, which has taken action in its own hands. Can we really say that the situation in Serbia is about Chinese imperialism, or is it a case that the West failed Serbia over and over again and now sees its diplomatic failures backfiring back to them?
Sino-Serbian relations in retrospective
The relationship between both countries has always been on a warm status, but the potential for an even stronger relationship came during the 1990s in the so-called Yugoslavian Wars. The People’s Republic of China was critical against the U.S and NATO forces bombing campaign in Serbia while it supported the decisions of President Milošević, describing them as vital decisions for preserving the territorial integrity of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, against the Albanian separatists and the UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army) terrorists. The opposition against NATO intensified after NATO warplanes bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists. Although the West saw it as a mistake, this gave a clear signal to Serbia and China that the Western aggression against them could provide them with the potential of rebuilding their relations in the 21st century, in something more than just strong diplomatic ties.
Under the presidency of Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia has seen closer cooperation with China, especially at an economic level. For years now, both countries have cooperated in various industries. Since 2012, Serbia has received at least $10bn of Chinese investment in the country, changing rapidly its economic profile. Serbia is also part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which allowed Serbia to provide an investment-friendly environment towards China without any EU regulations, making the country the largest economy in the Western Balkans. Also, China has changed the tourism industry in Serbia. Since 2017, Chinese citizens can visit Serbia visa-free. This initiative allowed the country to improve its industry with a rise of at least 36% from Chinese visitors. Also, Serbia as a hub of investments does not only concentrate on tourism. China has invested a tremendous amount of money in its infrastructure and energy sectors and projects such as the Budapest-Belgrade Railway while Chinese firms have acquired various steel plants and coal mines, such as the Smederevo steel plant and a copper mine is in Bor, east of Serbia. These actions by China have kept afloat the Serbian economy while saving more than 10.000 job positions, highlighting the reconstruction of the country and making China the most important trading partner for Serbia in the 21st century.
Politics, the pandemic, and the success of Serbia in the game of geopolitical chess
Apart from close economic ties, both countries share a common interest in the political arena. Since the 1990’s China has been a close political ally of Serbia, supporting its territorial integrity while not recognizing the pseudostate of Kosovo. On the other hand, Serbia has been supportive of China’s decisions to safeguard its interests in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang, agreeing with the One-China policy that the People’s Republic of China has been advocating for years. The relationship between the two countries has been seen negatively by the West, with the EU being skeptical about China’s intentions in the region. A resolution from the EU parliament on the 2019-2020 Commission report on Serbia expressed the concern over the increased economic ties between the two states, and China’s questionable investments that are lacking transparency, while also pointing out that the investors in Serbia have failed to carry out important environmental assessments. “With this behavior, Serbia, a candidate country for EU accession is jeopardizing its progress”, were the statements from the EU side, that sees the growing influence of China in the region, as a threat to its own interests. However, Serbia is not bowing to the threats of the EU, as it sees the European bloc constantly neglecting Serbia’s needs and undermining its national interests.
With the inclusion of China as a major player in the Balkans, some analysts present an interesting argument that China has overthrown the Russian Federation from the position of the most important ally of Serbia. Historically, Russia and Serbia have seen very close ties, and it’s unlikely that the inclusion of China as an ally to Serbia will jeopardize that. However, news organizations and analysts from the West found an opportunity to provide an environment of division within Serbia. Understandably, Serbia seeks to improve its position in the world, and having more than one powerful allies, especially one that has the fastest growing economy in the world, will benefit the rhetoric of Aleksandar Vučić, who has demonstrated to the Serbian public that the country has drastically changed and it has overcome the previous humiliations and mistreatment from the West. It seems that the West is terrified of the potential growth of Serbia, a country that once was brutally bombarded by U.S and NATO forces, and now has the chance to dominate the geopolitical scene in the Balkans without even being part of the EU. The country represents an open door for China in Europe, allowing the country to fully take advantage of the various infrastructure and energy projects that are presented. Serbia is building a new lasting alliance, and as much as the West wants to undermine this relationship by creating political divisions about who is the biggest ally of Serbia, they miss the big point. The country now has more allies and more influence in the Balkans and feels it’s time not to take the West seriously. For years the EU, in particular, has underestimated Serbia while showing full support for the illegitimate state of Kosovo, and portraying the country as this evil entity and abuser of human rights.
Another important parameter in the evaluation of the current situation in the world. When COVID-19 spread all over the world, we witnessed a phenomenal collapse of our daily lives, with many businesses closing and the governments around the world putting an effort to recover from the virus. Serbia, unlike other countries in Europe, had a successful vaccination campaign and managed to win the geopolitical game of chess, simply by not playing the game. For Serbia, vaccination was never a political game and that’s why they managed to deal with it better. As prime minister Ana Brnabic stated: “Whether vaccines come from China, Russia, the EU or the U.S, we don’t care, as long as they’re safe and we get them as soon as possible. For us, vaccination is a healthcare issue, not a geopolitical matter”. Just by this statement, Serbia managed to understand the dangers of politicizing the vaccines and decided to focus on the health of its citizens, effectively overcoming the growing danger of the virus.
The fight is not over yet, but unlike the EU, Serbia set its priorities straight, and in a way, revealed the failed bureaucratic system of the EU, that chooses politics over the health of its citizens. Although Serbia received both the Russian vaccine Sputnik V and the Chinese Sinopharm, analysts have focused on the importance of Chinese help. For the simple reason that the help from Russia was expected, because of the historic, cultural, and religious ties between both states. The help from China was something that shifted the balance in Serbia, and the country managed to be in a better position compared to other countries in the Balkans and the EU. Both China and Serbia made it clear from the beginning that they will support each other in these harsh times. A few months ago, the Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ivica Dačić, was in Beijing, declaring his support in any way possible to China. In his statement, he said: “You didn’t fear NATO bombs, my visit shows we’re not afraid of the virus”; again pointing out the importance of this alliance that dates years back. The EU might be skeptical about China’s intentions, but one thing is for sure; they did not provide help when needed, proving once again that European solidarity is a fairy tale.
The Chinese impact on Serbia: Voices from within the country
Although the government of Aleksandar Vučić has made it very clear to the Serbian public that foreign investments from China are a positive step towards the socio-economic transformation of the country, some people within Serbia have shared their thoughts about whether this can bring a positive or a negative impact for Serbia. Dragan Djilas, the former mayor of Belgrade and president of the Freedom & Justice Party in Serbia, expresses his criticism of the political decisions of Aleksandar Vučić. In his view, democracy in Serbia does not exist anymore, and there is only one man to blame, Aleksandar Vučić. Djilas also points out that the growing relationship with China has been transformed into a dependent, one-way relationship, where China acts as a colonizer. “China operates in Serbia, the same way it does in the continent of Africa. It seems that now we have a new Big Brother”, referring to the new status quo, where Russia is not seen as the only powerful ally that Serbia can rely on. For Mr. Djilas, this dependency on China will only jeopardize any potential ascension in the European Union. His point is shared by many within Serbia that see this dichotomy in society that wants to move more on the West yet again it makes agreements and treaties with a non-democratic and autocratic government, and it seems that Aleksandar Vučić follows the same path. “Our struggle is focused on Europe, which should finally realize that we want to establish a free and democratic society and end the denigrating process in Serbia established by Aleksandar Vučić”, were the words of Dragan Djilas, who sees China slowly overtaking his country.
On the other hand, Djordje Terek, an analyst at the Center for International Public Policy in Belgrade, does not see the involvement of China in the Western Balkans, especially in Serbia, as a new phenomenon. “China, similarly to Russia, Germany or the U.S., has its own interest in the Western Balkans region and it has been present there for a while”. If we view this statement from a realistic point of view, we can make sense of China’s intentions in Serbia being no different than the intentions of any other country that revolves around the philosophy of realpolitik. Also, there is an interesting mention of Serbia’s new role in the region, especially after the Belgrade Summit. As Terek points out: “Serbia, as a potential EU member state, was given a prominent role within China’s BRI initiative as it was demonstrated at the summit in Belgrade. It is the strategy based on the penetration into the EU market that China centralized around Belgrade. With that being said, Serbia is one of the compelling China’s attributes in the Western Balkans and Europe as well. In 2009, Serbia and China signed a strategic partnership agreement and in 2013, Serbia hosted a 16+1 summit in Belgrade where $900 billion infrastructure projects were promised to the region”.
However, although the government of Aleksandar Vučić is keen to demonstrate how China’s investments have been crucial for Serbia, the European Union is still by far the most crucial contributor in foreign direct investments, comprising at least 70% of FDI in the country. With this remark, some may argue that indeed China is an important ally to Serbia, but the EU is still around, reminding the country that it is still a pending member for EU accession. It seems that the presence of China in Serbia will only be positive if Aleksandar Vučić manages to balance both of his commitments to the EU and China. After all, Serbia still wants to be part of the European Union and not merge with the People’s Republic of China. In some final remarks, Djordje Terek thinks that if the government of Serbia wants any success to come out of this situation it needs to evaluate the situation delicately. “While Serbia has been actively pursuing EU membership, the current state of affairs tells us that Vučić uses the geopolitical window to further deviate from EU integrations, while continuously sitting on two chairs, and only time will show if that will be beneficial for Serbia”.
One other aspect of China’s involvement in Serbia, that has troubled the citizens of the country, are the environmental issues that have emerged since China’s increased investment in the steel factories and the mines in the east of the country. In the area of Bor, where a Chinese company has recently acquired the ownership of a mining facility, there have been reports of increased pollution in the area, with environmental agencies being concerned about the high levels of sulfur dioxide and arsenic in the air. Besides the air pollution issue, concerns have been raised about the water pollution of the area. Near the mining facility, in the village of Metovnica, locals have seen the impact of the mine activities, in shortage of water and water pollution. For analyst Djordje Terek, this increased pollution in the area rapidly plummeted in the last seven years, potentially making Serbia the global leader in air pollution. “The Chinese investments in the steel factory in Smederevo and the copper mine in Bor, have made the people in the area wear face masks even before the beginning of the pandemic. It seems that the ties of the Serbian government with China is on higher priority rather than the environmental damage”. The mayor of Bor, Aleksandar Milikic, quickly dismissed the allegations of environmental damage and characterized any kind of protest in the area regarding this subject as the work of political actors wishing to benefit from it. As for the people in Bor, they can see the damage to the environment, but many of them point out the positive aspect of the Chinese investments, where people can find a good-paying job at the mines. Given the absence of work in the area in recent years, these investments have more positives than negatives for them.
Whether we would look at the Chinese involvement in Serbia as a positive or a negative thing, one thing is for sure. The geopolitical profile of the country is changing, and Serbia can benefit from the increased investments in its country. However, Aleksandar Vučić must be careful how he handles the situation inside Serbia. The increased protests and the uneasy feeling of its citizens regarding the environment, should not be aspects that are overlooked by the government, Nevertheless, with the global pandemic devastating many countries in Europe and around the world, Serbia has demonstrated its will to improve the healthcare situation in the country by not focusing on the vaccine politics and as a result winning, one might say the political chess game that the West found itself playing. Only time will show if Aleksandar Vučić manages to hold on, on both the West and the East, in a rare situation where Serbia seems to have the upper hand as to how the country must advance now, trying to reshape the international image about Serbia.
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