Europe wakes up to the China challenge

Europe wakes up to the China challenge

But the search for ‘strategic autonomy’ faces obstacles

The pan-Asian trade pact between 15 countries including Japan, China, and South Korea — the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP — is a wake-up call for the West.

With the U.S. conspicuous by its absence, RCEP is the latest sign of a shift in economic power eastward. China’s stunning third-quarter rebound from COVID-19 contrasts starkly with the relatively feeble recovery in Europe, where governments are still struggling with a second wave of the pandemic.

China has become the European Union’s most important trading partner — a remarkable achievement given Beijing only joined the World Trade Organization 21 years ago. “China is catching up even faster,” says Herman Van Rompuy, former Belgium prime minister, president of the EU council, and leading member of the European Policy Centre in Brussels.

Van Rompuy — a devotee and publisher of haiku poetry — knows Asia well. He observes that China’s rise and Donald Trump’s “America First” protectionism has created a new term in the EU’s political lexicon: strategic autonomy. Europe is eager to escape being sandwiched between the two superpowers, but “strategic autonomy” is more easily said than achieved.