English author Charles Dickens famously began his Tale of Two Cities,
published exactly 150 years ago, by capturing the ambivalence of an era: "It
was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it
was the age of foolishness." In the current global turbulence, Dickens's
depiction of contradictory forces applies.
On the occasion of the London summit on April 2, the leaders of the Group of 20
countries declared in their final statement: "We face the greatest challenge to
the world economy in modern times." The International Labor Organization
estimates that in 2008, the number of unemployed people in the world has
increased by 14 million and that 38 million people will loose their
job in 2009 ("The Financial and Economic Crisis: A Decent Work Response,
General secretary of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon expressed his worry: "I
fear worse to come: a full-blown political crisis defined by growing social
unrest, weakened governments and angry publics who have lost faith in their
leaders and their own future." (The Guardian, April 2, 2009).
However, by questioning many of our assumptions, our ways of doing business or
even some of our values, the crisis prompted meaningful reflections and
debates, generated intense consultation, and triggered important reforms. From
a geopolitical perspective, it underlines a rearrangement of power which was
already reshaping our world system.
The European Union, China and the US are the three main structuring forces of
the 21st century global village, and the dynamics within this triangle as much
as its interactions with the rest of the world will largely determine the
foreseeable future of world politics. In this context, the idea floated by some
analysts of a G-2, composed of the US and China, is a theoretical
bipolarization that evacuates one fundamental dimension and misses a nuanced
and complex reality.
Although the global recession has an influence on China (its first-quarter
gross domestic product rose 6.1% from a year earlier, its worst quarterly
growth in two decades), it certainly does not halt China's renaissance.
Beijing's internal adjustments (from an export-oriented economy to a growth
more dependent on the domestic consumption), its active and sophisticated
international involvement from Africa to South America, combined with the
difficulties of the other main players accelerate China's re-emergence and its
return to past centrality.
Obviously, China is already a pillar of Asia's stability and is in a position
to co-design a new world order. The paper on an international reserve currency
released just before the G-20 by China's central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan
can be seen as an illustration of Beijing's readiness to make a proposal which
could, if adopted, have considerable global effect. The Chinese renaissance
modifies the world's distribution of power in a gradual and peaceful process
that does not entail abrupt discontinuity or violent disruption.
Europe, another major factor of the world affairs' equation, has also to cope
with the decline of the global economic activity. Even if the Europeans have
used mainly the national level to tackle the challenges, the crisis exposes the
need for a more integrated and potent Europe. With adequate leadership, the
European Union could take some initiatives to put itself in a position to have
a strategic role commensurate with the weight of its economy and in tune with
its sui generis culture.
Although President Barack Obama's America remains a key element of the global
village, the US has lost the status of unchallenged hyperpower. However, the
failure of Wall Street was not at the origin of a redistribution of power but
reinforced a shift that was already unfolding.
Confronted with the growing evidence of China's re-emergence and the increasing
economic interdependence across the Pacific within the "Chinamerica", some
raised the idea of a G-2. In an article entitled "The Group of Two that could
Change the World" (Financial Times, January 13, 2009), Zbigniew Brzezinski, a
former national security advisor under president Jimmy Carter, declared that
the world needs an informal G-2 made of China and the US.
At the eighth Euro-China Forum organized in Tianjin, China, on April 28, former
French prime minister Laurent Fabius made the following remark: "The new
fashionable motto in some circles is supposed to be the so-called G-2, a
condominium between the US and China which would be capable of solving all the
problems. Let me say bluntly that I consider it to be an illusion."
Undoubtedly, the Sino-American relationship has to be taken to another level,
but it does not have to be a process that would put the European Union on the
margin of world affairs. Sino-American and Sino-European links have to be
Only a trio and not a G-2 can contribute to solve the global social, economic
and political problems. A constructive triangulation between Beijing,
Washington and Brussels requires an open China, a cooperative America and a
cohesive EU, but would depend also on actors free of past ideological barriers
and able to conceive cooperation where all the potential synergy could
Instead of speculating on a G-2, the time has come to initiate a strategic
trialogue, a process which would bring together top Chinese, American and
A trio is not a triumvirate in the sense that it does not aim to subordinate
other poles of power. It is by accepting the idea of a multipolar world that
the EU-China-US trio can be a genuine constructive dynamic.
In the triangle EU-China-US, the link between Europe and China has a special
significance. Three centuries ago, Gottfried Leibniz, a powerful thinker but
also the political advisor of the House of Brunswick in Hanover, had already
detected some of the key features of the Sino-European articulation.
In his preface to the Novissima Sinica (1697) he wrote:
consider it a singular plan of the fates that human cultivation and refinement
should today be concentrated, as it were, in the two extremes of our continent,
in Europe and in China, which adorns the Orient as Europe does the opposite
edge of the earth. Perhaps Supreme Providence has ordained such an arrangement,
so that as the most cultivated and distant peoples stretch out theirs arms to
each other, those in between may gradually be brought to a better way of life.
Leibniz's insight is a very solid reference. Europe and China are two
civilizations with certain symmetrical characteristics at the two edges of the
same continent, and by deepening their relationship they can bring prosperity
and stability to the vast and complex space which is in the middle of Eurasia.
What Leibniz's observation presupposes is of an astonishing relevance today.
Various forms of excess are certainly to blame for the current tumultuous
global conditions. From the temptations of neo-imperialism to irrational
exuberance, hubris is too often in action. Europe and China proved several
times in their long history that they could find the path of moderation and the
way of balance. The US would benefit from two ancient civilizations capable of
reinterpreting the best of their respective tradition.
The EU-China-US trio has in itself the material and spiritual resources to
serve the ideal of a more harmonious modernity - an era of synthesis and
conciliation between present and past, man and nature and civilizations.
If Dickens' Tale of Two Cities helps to look at the ambivalence of a
critical period, 14th century Chinese author Luo Guanzhong's Romance of The
Three Kingdoms, which envelops the concept of a triangular
configuration, adds one dimension that takes us closer to global equilibrium.
David Gosset is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at China Europe
International Business School (CEIBS), Shanghai, and founder of the Euro-China