Eyes on Europe

The leaders of Asia and Europe gather in London this month for their second summit meeting. Continuing its occasional series of personal views on the shape of the new Europe, The World Today invited three Asian contributions.

The World Today Published 1 April 1998 Updated 7 December 2018 6 minute READ

Opportunity and challenge

Wang Hong, an Associate Research Professor, works in the West-Europe division of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations

In the current debate over the ‘unipolar’ or ‘multi-polar’ world order after the Cold Wa r, the majority seems to believe that we are moving to a multi-polar world. The European Union (EU), as one of the growing powers, is contributing to this new order. With enlargement and the approach of the monetary union, it will become more and more powerful at global and local levels. But at the same time, it is also facing big challenges in its integration process.

Politically, the EU benefits world and local stability. As we see it, the United States – the sole superpower – has become more and more aggressive, and people in other countries are worried what the world will be like under its leadership. The new world order, according to US design, seems to mean that people must follow American values and interests, otherwise Uncle Sam will strike back with sanctions, or even war, to teach a lesson.

However, some big powers or groups of powers are rising to balance the superpower. For instance, Russia, Japan, China, ASEAN and the EU have all tried to promote independent positions in international affairs. The EU, an old ally of the US, can now bluntly say ‘no’ to Washington and significantly prevent US domination.

During the recent Iraq crisis, the US wanted to use bombs to resolve the weapons inspection problem. This was strongly opposed by France, Russia and China. The non-violent resolution proves that multi-polarisation helps maintain a stable and peaceful world order and that ‘balancing’ powers are needed.

Be grown-up

It is time for Europe to be grown-up and to become ‘Europe of the Europeans’. Last year’s Amsterdam treaty looked towards a common foreign and security policy, which indicated that the Union would play a bigger role in international affairs without getting permission from its old leader.

For example, the European Commission endorsed a new policy on the Middle East peace process, which demanded an equal place with the United States at all talks, and warned that EU aid would end unless Israel stopped blockading the Palestinian economy.

On the issue of Iran, while Washington insists on the maintenance of UN sanctions, France, by discreetly negotiating a series of trade deals and signing an oil agreement, had the sanctions softened sufficiently. Moreover, Europeans sent their ambassadors back to Tehran, and have recently decided to improve political relations. Since the end of the Cold Wa r, the countries of the EU have become more and more independent; they want to go their own way in world affairs, and make less and less compromises with the Americans.

Economic circle

On January 1 1999, the Euro comes into existence, and some eleven EU countries will transfer to the new single currency. The Euro’s launch marks the start of a new ‘economic circle’ for Europe’s 30 million people. It will be an important milestone for future political integration. The single currency will not only become another strong currency alongside the US dollar and Japanese yen, but will also influence the international economy, help attract outside investment, improve industrial competition and employment, and raise the Union’s profile in global affairs.

Although the European Union is moving towards its target, there are many difficulties.

First, relations with America are not easy. The US wants to extend the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to consolidate its influence over Europe. The West Europeans, on the other hand, are trying to keep the initiative on Europe’s defence, to avoid being ordered about by Washington, which continues to control NATO. European defence is not strong enough, and the EU has to rely on the US.

Secondly, there are all kinds of internal contradictions. In the Balkan crisis, the German and French had different connections and interests; Germany to Croatia and France to Serbia. In the end the EU had to ask the US for help in this regional crisis.

Who will lead?

The troika relationship between Germany, France and the UK is very delicate. Who will lead the EU, which hardly speaks with one voice? More importantly, enlargement of the Union to include new members in Eastern Europe, countries with profoundly different economies and fragile new democratic institutions, makes the future uncertain.

There are several hurdles for the single currency. For example, the EU has to establish a credible market for it. This probably means keeping interest rates higher, with more expensive borrowing, less fresh investment and fewer new jobs in Europe this year. It will aggravate unemployment, which is already serious.

China attaches importance to the full breadth of long-term reliable and mutually beneficial ties with the EU. These have been developing since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1975. In recent years, the bilateral relationship in the political, economic and trade fields, has improved rapidly. China has already become the EU’s fourth largest trading partner and one of its most important markets. In 1997, the volume of bilateral trade was US$43 billion. EU aid to China has increased threefold since 1990 and investments added up to US$11.5 billion.

But since we have different cultural and social systems, there are sometimes disputes on human rights issues. Both sides have recognised that they can’t resolve the problem through confrontation. The EU has declared that this year it will not introduce human rights resolutions against China in the UN. Instead, members of the EU have discussed human rights with their Chinese counterparts three times since January. Progress has been made in resolving differences, and Mary Robinson who is in charge of human rights in the UN, has been invited to visit China. In future, with increased effort, the Sino-EU relationship must enter a new stage.

Europa, oh Europa

Pravit Rojanaphruk, Cultural Affairs Editor of The Nation newspaper in Bangkok, is currently a Reuter Fellow at Green College, Oxford.

Without the past there is no present. And without the present, the future drifts away, with little sense of direction and purpose. I wonder where Europe’s future will be. For the world is likely to go with her, if not follow her.

Many say Europe is a very cultured place. Culture is about openness; it’s about learning from and with others. However, Europe’s colonial and imperial past proved otherwise. She has failed many trials of will.

My Europe is thus paradoxical. While her science and arts uplifted millions, her exploitations and oppression grieved the hearts of even more.

Was it not this self-proclaimed civilisation – especially the French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and German – which committed atrocities against people of various colours and cultures well into the middle of this century? All that, in the name of God, gold or the glory of European civilisation.

‘A single text [in the Holy Bible]’ wrote Laurence Binyon, a European and a Christian, ‘literally interpreted, was held by pious slave-traders to authorise the enslavement of the negro race.’

‘Whoever possesses gold,’ Christopher Columbus thought, ‘can acquire all that he desire in this world. Truely, for gold he can gain entrance for his soul into paradise.’

‘He (The West) was wont to regard Japan as barbarous while she indulged in the gentle arts of peace,’ lamented Okakura Kakuzo, one of Japan’s true scholars earlier this century. ‘He called her civilised since she began to commit wholesale slaughter on Manchurian fields… Fain would we remain barbarians, if our claim to civilisation were to be based on the gruesome glory of war. Fain would we await the time when due respect shall be paid to our arts and ideals.’

Whenever I gaze at those dreaming spires of Oxford colleges, or read in the magnificent Bodleian library, I cannot help but be reminded that this famous institution was part of the British Empire [of Blindness and Oppression, that is].

Part of Oxford’s strength and grandeur was possible not just because the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish were exploited but because so were many other people around the globe. In turn, Oxford taught many more students who went on to run the Empire.

Anyone who has come across European accounts of native peoples will have noticed that while they were often described as savage and violent, it was peace-loving Europeans who nearly wiped out many of them. Later, was it not the Europeans who slaughtered each other and called it the two Great Wars?

What then is missing in the education? Knowledge does not seems to come readily equipped with morality. That morality can not be taught but must be learnt, and not just by the head, but by the heart as well – like wisdom.

Euro blah blah

Some may wonder why I dwell on the past when almost everybody looks forward: the euro dollar, the euro star, euro tunnel, eurocrat and the euro blah blah blah.

Yes, we should, and shall, look towards the future. But not before we learn some lesson from the past. Has Europe failed to grasp the essence and true meaning of Christianity, of wealth, and of civilisation?

This question is very relevant to the future of Europe, and indeed the world. For although Nietzche declared the death of God, the greed for wealth has thrived. Negative ecological and cultural impacts are already felt, and nobody really knows how much more will follow.

This unquestioned notion of wealth rooted in unlimited growth and consumption, and the increasing commodification of all spheres of life, pose the ultimate test for humanity. We have not yet managed to grasp the true essence of wealth.

Double standard

Peter Carey, modern historian at Trinity College, Oxford, recently remarked that ‘Britain has a double standard because she is prepared to bomb one third world dictator [Saddam Hussein] but is willing to roll out the red carpet to welcome another. ’

Carey was referring to President Suharto of Indonesia, held responsible by human right groups for the death of an estimated half a million Indonesians and 200,000 East Timorese over his three decades in power. Suharto, whom groups such as ‘The British Coalition for East Ti m o r’ and ‘The Indonesian Human Rights Campaign’ have accused of serious rights abuses, is scheduled to attend the Asia-Europe Summit in London. This is about economic interest; British Aerospace has been selling arms to Indonesia for years. China is another example.

What greater loss is there for millions of people than mental bondage to the single pursuit of material accumulation. And what illusion is greater than the illusion that we have choice although it is increasingly a choice between brand A and B.

Notions of civilisation have not been properly resolved either. This is why we see the birth of Post Colonial Studies in the late 1970s. Thailand, though not a colony, was culturally affected by the confrontation as well.

While millions are still trying to de-colonise themselves, physically and mentally, let concerned Europeans join hands and heal the wounds. Let us try to revive and regain the many beauties of countless cultures.

It is with this enriching diversity of values and culture that peace and wisdom will bloom. From there we shall together try to seek the path towards a better world.

Where the twain shall meet

Koh Buck Song is a Senior Correspondent on The Straits Times in Singapore.

If adversity concentrates the mind, the Asian economic crisis that started in late 1997 has unexpectedly turned Asian attention towards Europe.

The euro, Europe’s single currency scheduled to be launched next year, is being seen in some circles as a model for a similar mechanism in Southeast Asia. There is already growing agreement among the region’s nations that using each other’s currencies to pay for intra-ASEAN imports will help to establish financial stability in these troubled times. A single currency, some argue, would help curb volatility and cushion against the next wave of attacks by currency speculators sitting in air-conditioned rooms far away in New York or London.

The wisdom of having a single currency is best left to financial experts to sort out. What this turn of events shows is that for the man in the street from Seoul to Surabaya, the major transformations happening in Europe have been distant from their daily lives. Until now.

In a basic form, the foundation for Southeast Asian regional unity has already been started. ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, already groups Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. With Cambodia still left out of the club, after the political turmoil there last year which saw factional fighting and the removal of First Prime Minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, it is just one short of the planned ‘Asean 10’.

Lessons to learn

Unlike the European Union, ASEAN’s main focus is on regional security, diplomatic solidarity in international forums and global economics. There is no question of any loss of sovereignty. But having a single Southeast Asian currency would put national sovereignty at issue. It could mean that, more than ever, the countries of the region will sink or swim together. Some nations will find that hard to accept.

Under such an arrangement, the more vulnerable members would naturally welcome the added support, while the more resilient would understandably wonder about any shared impact. This suggests that both believers and sceptics will take a closer look at the setting up of the euro than they have done so far.

The pros and cons of being part of a larger regional unit, the dismantling of ‘us versus them’ mindsets – these and other questions, which Europe has grappled with for years, are likely to be asked all over again, in Asia.

The economic crisis has also led to much rethinking and re-positioning by the political leaders who manage Southeast Asia’s economies. The intensified urgency of the search for new markets and investors will definitely take more Asians into Europe. In these and other arenas, closer ties should inevitably follow.

For anyone who cares about boosting interaction between the two continents, these developments can only be good in the long term. Politically, the bridges have already been built, with the Asia-Europe Meeting process, and the Asia-Europe Foundation which takes care of intellectual, cultural and people-to-people contacts.

As far as investments and markets go, China like Southeast Asia is also looking more to Europe. But in other aspects, the growing giant of Asia is less interested. Geo-politically, it is the triangular balance between China, Japan and the United States that is more important than European influence. And this will always be so, because of the proximity of these major powers, in a post-Cold War era without the threat of a neighbouring Soviet Union.

Still, it has always been known, but now shown statistically, that Asia cares more about Europe than the other way round. A survey commissioned by the Asia-Europe Foundation and released at a conference in Luxembourg in October 1997 showed that the European media reported less on Asia than vice versa. Not only that, European coverage of Asia tended generally to be more negative than neutral.

Paying attention

Looking at things from the opposite angle, the question that arises is: what would make Europeans pay more attention to Asia?

To blame the media entirely would be off the mark, as newspapers, television and radio usually reflect public opinion and interest. Nonetheless, the media in Europe can do more to lead the way, and see what parallels and connections there are between the continents.

It has been said that Europe cannot be blamed for not paying more attention to other corners of the world, because it has recently been too busy with its own problems and challenges at a time of great change. Ironically, it is also the period of deep readjustment which Asian countries now find themselves in that has put Europe in the spotlight for them.

Will it take a crisis to focus European minds more on Asia? Hopefully not.