authoritarianism, Democracy, Digital Age, Information & Communication, Radical extremism

Europe, the USA and China

Oct 12 2020

By Boaventura de Sousa Santos*

The statements by the US ambassador in his interview to the weekly Expresso on 26 September are offensive to the Portuguese people and a violation of diplomatic codes of conduct. He threatened that the US would no longer regard Portugal as an ally not only in economic but also in security matters if Portugal were to adopt (even if only partially) Huawei’s 5G technology.  We know that such aggressive style is the mark of interference in the internal affairs of vassal countries and “banana republics”. But the timing and the context of the ambassador’s statements are all too clear. Given that the US geostrategic goal is to weaken or dismantle the EU (Brexit having been but the first step) so as to more easily force European countries to join in the new cold war – i.e., the war against China –, Portugal stands as the perfect target, not only because it is viewed as one of the EU’s weak links, but also because it will be presiding over the Union in the coming months. The Portuguese authorities reacted in the only possible way, but it is up to the EU to make the big decisions. What does it see as the decision that best serves its interests? Europe has come to a decisive bifurcation: it either becomes fragmented or seeks to deepen integration. My analysis rests on the notion that integration is better than fragmentation and on the assumption that integration cannot be deepened unless there is respect for the autonomy of each country and more democratic relations between countries.

This is not the place to analyze in full the longstanding ties between Europe (especially the Mediterranean region) and China and India, two countries that are part of the same supercontinent, Eurasia, where the Bronze Age first emerged to give rise to the first urban revolution, some 3,000 years before our era. Let us just remember that there were trade and technology exchanges in the region over many centuries and that the West was dominant in certain periods, while the East was dominant in others. This alternation seemed to cease in the 15th century, with the pendulum swinging in favor of Europe. With the Ottoman empire blocking expansion by land, Europe became the cradle of transatlantic empires successively led by Portugal, Spain, Holland, France and England. This protracted period, however, ended in 1945 (not counting the fact that the Portuguese colonies did not rise to independence until 1975). Since then, the USA has been the only empire worthy of the name. There has been talk, for some years, of its decline and of the rise of the empire of China, although whether China is already (again) an empire is open to debate. For several years now, studies by the US intelligence services (CIA) have been predicting that China will be the world’s first economy by the year 2030.

All the evidence suggests that we are faced with an empire in decline and another on the rise. The pandemic only made the signs stand out in greater relief. I would highlight the following. First of all, for several centuries and until the beginning of the 19th century, China was one of the world’s leading economies, accounting for 20 to 30 percent of the world economy. Then it began declining, so that by 1960 it accounted for just 4 percent of the world economy. From the 1970s onwards China began to re-emerge, and at present it accounts for 16 percent. The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that China has become the workshop of the world. As Donald Trump rails against the China virus, medical and nursing staff anxiously await the delivery of a new supply of personal protective equipment from China. Studies by Commerzbank and Deutsche Bank indicate that over the course of this year China will recover the GDP losses arising from the pandemic, while Europe and the US will continue to grapple with a severe recession. Today Chinese domestic consumption is 57.8 percent of GDP (against 35.3 percent in 2008), a percentage that is close to that of the more developed countries. The Western media have paid insufficient attention to the fact that China, faced with an intensification of the cold war by the US, is poised to pursue a policy of greater self-sufficiency or autonomy that will allow it to continue exporting to the world without having to rely heavily on high-tech imports. Among European countries, Germany may be one of the most severely affected, alongside Japan and South Korea. The image coming from the US is virtually the reverse of all this. The exceptional dynamism reached by the US during the late 1940s and the next two decades is long gone. Historically inclined to view war as a means of resolving conflicts, the United States insists on wasting on military adventures the wealth that would be better invested in the country. Military spending since 2001 has amounted to 6 trillion USD. Former President Jimmy Carter has recently lamented the fact that the United States has been at peace for only 16 of its 242 years as a nation. Conversely, China has not been at war with any country since the 1970s (some regional tensions notwithstanding), and estimates say that it now produces as much cement in three years as the US during the entire 20th century. China is building a vast middle class, whereas the US is destroying its own middle class. The three richest Americans possess as much wealth as the poorest 160 million Americans. The US has been falling steadily in the World Press Freedom Index and currently ranks 45th (in a list topped by several European countries, with Portugal ranking 10th and China 177th). Donald Trump’s political conduct is the opposite of all the positive things we have learned from the United States, to a point where the country is now at risk of being pushed to the brink of civil war. Still, as dangerous and cartoonish as he is, Trump is not the cause of US decline, but rather its product.

Europe (especially the part of Europe with the highest human development index) benefited from China’s opening up to international trade and the subsequent establishment of peaceful relations between the US and China. In this context, the EU had no need for a real foreign policy. There is every indication that this period is now over and that Europe will be forced to choose. Although historically marked by violence, both internally and on the world stage, nowadays Europe has no imperial aspirations and seems to wish to give a credible contribution to the defense of democratic values, peaceful coexistence and human rights. Empires are unfailingly bad for the regions under their sway. It can be said that those regions with no capacity to vie for imperial power always stand to gain more by allying themselves with a rising empire than with a declining one. On the other hand, however, there is no guarantee that the Chinese empire will be better for Europeans than the North American empire. It seems that the only way to preserve the values of democracy, peaceful coexistence and human rights is to maintain a degree of autonomy in relation to both. Only such relative autonomy will allow Europe to take integration to a deeper level, through a discussion of the terms of its insertion in the new era, which seems to be not so much a new era of globalization as an era of technological walls (and many other walls, for that matter, of no less dangerous types). This amounts to saying that no European country should let itself be blackmailed. International developments over the last decade tell us that China accepts the notion of relative autonomy and that it knows how to rein in its expansive drive whenever necessary. Conversely, the undiplomatic pressure now underway is a warning that the United States does not accept the notion of relative autonomy. Europe’s failure to find out how to resist will be the first step on a painful journey toward fragmentation.


 Boaventura de Sousa Santos is a Portuguese professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coímbra (Portugal), distinguished legal scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and global legal scholar at the University of Warwick. Co-founder and one of the main leaders of the World Social Forum. Article provided to Other News by the author.

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