German foreign minister cautions against East-West split

Heiko Maas at the Minister Forum 2020

Heiko Maas at the Minister Forum 2020, © Florian Gaertner/photothek.net

03.12.2020 - Article

Heiko Maas warns against decoupling as EU and US mull over joint front against China

As the European Union and the incoming Biden administration explore the option of forging a common front to deal with what is seen as the “China threat”, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has struck a note of caution, warning against hurtling down the path of decoupling.

“The world already has two poles: North and South, there is no need for another two in the East and the West,” he said in an exclusive interview with The Straits Times from Berlin.

The Financial Times on Monday reported that the EU will call on the United States to seize a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to forge a new global alliance to meet the “strategic challenge” posed by China. It cited a draft European Commission plan to rebuild their partnership that proposed wide-ranging cooperation, including on digital regulation and tackling Covid-19.

Amid anxieties in Asia that the coming together of the US and EU could usher in a new Cold War and provoke a reaction from a hemmed-in China, Mr Maas suggested that inclusiveness could be an element of the crystallising joint approach. “In the last couple of years, China has successfully filled a vacuum the United States left in the region. Decoupling of China and the US, however, does not take us anywhere,” he said.

Arguing against more polarisation, he added: “We build on diversification and inclusiveness as a guideline in our Asia policy and strongly believe if we have joint goals, we also have to pursue them together.”

Caution aside, Mr Maas saw the logic in a joint US-EU approach on China, noting their shared common objectives vis-a-vis Beijing - both promoted human rights, the rule of law, free and fair market access as well as free and open maritime routes.

The decades-old transatlantic consensus has frayed, however, as the Trump administration pursued an “America-first” policy and launched a unilateral trade war with China. For Europe, the Trump administration's trade war with China felt like it was being forced to ride a tiger, Mr Maas said. The net effect was that it left consumers and businesses worse off.

“Everybody loses in wars. This is also true for trade wars,” he said.

“The conflict with China has hampered the confidence of consumers and investors. Our economies are all interconnected through supply and value chains.

”We must revive our spirit of cooperation in order to jump off the tiger we have been forced to mount.“

How the US and EU join forces to tackle the pandemic could be an early benchmark for transatlantic ties, he suggested.

”We want to renew the transatlantic bond and redouble our efforts in areas of mutual interest, based on the values we share,“ he said, talking about Germany's priority areas in the first 100 days after the Biden administration takes over on Jan 20.

”A quick test for transatlantic cooperation will be our handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.“

Germany, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, has sought to unify divergent views within Europe on how to relate with an increasingly assertive China.

”The European Union often looks at China as a partner, a competitor and a systemic rival,“ Mr Maas said.

”In order to be able to successfully advocate for our interests and defend our beliefs vis-a-vis China, we must take a firm stance together. Strengthening our unity within the EU is a key priority of Germany's current EU Council presidency.“

Yesterday, the foreign ministers of EU and Asean held a virtual meeting and upgraded their ties to a strategic partnership. A statement issued after the event did not elaborate on its scope.

Mr Maas told The Straits Times that decades of steady economic growth had gradually shifted the balance of power from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. ”The shape of tomorrow's international order will be decided in the Indo-Pacific,“ he said. ”It is in our strategic interest to upgrade our engagement in the region and to intensify our cooperation with the Indo-Pacific - with Asean and its member states at the centre.“

The recently signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) - which creates the world's largest free trade area linking Asean with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand - was good news for multilateralism as it strengthens rules-based trade, he said. It would also serve up new business opportunities for European companies in RCEP countries.

Europe is expanding economic ties to the region, on top of its free trade pacts with Singapore, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea.

”Hopefully also with Asean, as a whole, in a not too distant future,“ Mr Maas said.

By Bhagyashree Garekar, Foreign Editor

First published in The Straits Times Singapore on 2 December 2020.

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