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Fissures in the global order mean both risks and opportunities

Global South cooperation is transforming international relations

EuropeAsiaGlobalizationUSA Politics

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the 15th BRICS Summit in Johannesburg. Photo courtesy the South Africa Government Communication and Information System/Flickr.

Too often, left-wing commentary treats the Western powers as a monolith, failing to appreciate the fissures that are beginning to emerge in the global order. The United States, Canada, and the European Union are, in the last instance, on the same side on the question of the survival of world capitalism and their leading roles within that system. But profound cleavages exist. Missing these is an analytical and political error.

In April, the New York Times reported that the US is pressuring EU countries to join its Cold War against China. Washington, according to the Financial Times, is demanding that Europe reduce trade with the world’s emerging superpower. The Netherlands has fallen into line and said that it would reduce exports of its semiconductor-making technology. The Times said that the US-EU alliance has deepened over Ukraine and that America would like the strengthened partnership “to include clearer alignment against China.”

However, the paper reported that:

European countries, which do not see China as a peer rival but as an increasingly troubling trading partner, would prefer that the Americans stop pushing them to adopt a tougher stance against Beijing.
Diplomats said that in meetings with the US authorities, for example, American policymakers have described the close coordination of EU-US sanctions against Russia as a blueprint for possible future sanctions against China, should there be a military move against Taiwan.
That kind of talk, the diplomats said, has unsettled European governments, which view their interests best served by not picking sides between Washington and Beijing, especially not so early in what is becoming a superpower standoff.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, European Council President Charles Michel, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, and French President Emmanuel Macron have all visited China in recent months. China has substantial trade and investment deals with powerful European nations, notably Germany, which are reluctant to jeopardize these arrangements. China has also sought to revive the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), a significant trade deal with the EU that was almost consummated five years ago. Beijing, according to the New York Times, is intent on driving a wedge between the EU and the US.

Even as there is an appetite within Europe to resist US efforts to draw them into a new Cold War against China, other forces within the bloc are eager to sign-up. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, visited Beijing but is a prominent China hawk. She said she intends to increase scrutiny of trade and investment flows in what the Financial Times described as “sensitive technological areas such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence.” The EU, von der Leyen said, needs to develop “new defensive tools” as it updates its so-called security policies vis-à-vis China.

The European Parliament has also imposed sanctions over China’s treatment of Uyghurs. Beijing retaliated by sanctioning five members of the parliament, a major barrier to bringing the CAI back to life. The EU has created, according to the Financial Times, new “trade defence tools” that enable it to respond to perceived “economic intimidation and curb access for Chinese state-subsidized companies or producers using forced labour.” There have also been EU proposals to reduce reliance on Chinese imports by upping stocks on vital raw materials and increasing domestic production of “green technology.”

The EU is militarily dependent on the US, which gives Washington considerable leverage. The US is also the number one export market for EU goods. At the same time, the EU imports more goods from China than anywhere else.

Washington appears to be trying to do with China and the EU what it did in the leadup to the Ukraine war—when major EU states like France and Germany were less enthusiastic about antagonizing Russia, with whom they maintained significant economic ties. Yet deteriorating EU-China ties would not necessarily indicate full-spectrum US dominance of global affairs. India, like China, has helped keep Russia afloat during the war, openly disregarding sanctions and buying massive volumes of discounted Russian oil and natural gas. India and China, meanwhile, are the world’s most populous countries and are both nuclear powers. Their purchase agreements with Russia potentially grant them a larger voice in deciding how and when the Ukraine war ends.

In the spring, Brazil signed 15 trade agreements with China and is considering hosting a new Chinese semiconductor factory. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva also irked NATO and the EU by declaring that the US is “stimulating” the fighting in Ukraine. He continues to campaign for a peaceful resolution to the conflict by suggesting that Ukraine should cede Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014.

South Africa has deep ties to Russia dating back to the Soviet Union’s support for the anti-apartheid resistance. Johannesburg has chosen not to break these ties since Russia’s invasion, instead attempting to broker talks between the warring sides. This has predictably strained South African relations with the US.

All this jockeying for position is sign of a world order in flux, and much is at stake. On the one hand, the US getting its way and undermining EU-China relations would increase the risk of open conflict with China. On the other, if the European states maintain relatively hospitable relations with China, the US would be in a weaker position to ignite such a war and to maintain hegemony over the world economy. That would give countries in the Global South a greater range of blocs with which to work and hence more space in which to freely develop outside of the US-dominated straitjacket.

Cracks in the US-EU alliance could mean political openings for the working classes living in the West as well as in Global South nations. In a world facing climate catastrophe, skyrocketing levels of inequality, the threat of more war and even a nuclear war, the costs of missing any such opportunity would be nothing short of tectonic.

Greg Shupak writes fiction and political analysis and teaches Media Studies and English at the University of Guelph-Humber. He’s the author of The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel and the Media. He writes a monthly column with Canadian Dimension and his work frequently appears in outlets like Electronic Intifada, F.A.I.R, The Guardian, In These Times, Jacobin, and The Nation.


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