A few weeks ago I wrote about a future in which China would seek to fracture the unity of the West so as to undermine the prevailing international system and install global rules/norms that suit its own interests. In the article I used the recent Australian defense white paper to argue that 1) this process was already underway and 2) that the Pacific members of the West would bare the brunt of Beijing’s efforts for the time being. I wrote:
As such, it is likely China will focus on co-opting the Pacific members of the West before moving on to fracture Europe’s unity and strain U.S.-European ties. This is why the recent Australian defense paper is so troubling – it indicates the shift in priorities has already begun in Asia, even amongst long-standing U.S. allies.
However, while browsing the New York Times yesterday morning I came across an article that is not only an excellent example of such a Chinese foreign policy but also proves Beijing is already acting to divide Europe on key issues.
While the issue of solar panal tarifs does not seem of strategic significance at first glance, it is in fact an important subject for two reasons. First, if Beijing succeeds in undermining the European Commission’s attempt to levy the solar tarifs it will call into question the ability of the EU to negotiate trade issues as a bloc. The Treaty of Lisbon bestowed all parts of the EU with legal personality, meaning the Union can sign international treaties in its own name on issues ranging from trade and investment to foreign policy and security. Prior to this, only the European Communities (the economic pillar of the EU) had legal personality; the Lisbon Treaty was supposed to usher in a new era of European unity on international affairs.
Second, as I mentioned in my previous article, once one Western country makes the move to seek better bilateral relations with China by sacrificing solidarity with the West it becomes easier for other countries to follow suit. It breaks the status quo inertia. In this case, Germany is lobbying against the tarifs because of strong trade ties with China. It is unclear how the issue of EU tarifs against Chinese solar panels will be decided, but so far it appears Beijing has the advantage. It will be interesting to follow this story and any others like it that crop up in the coming years.
06/02/2013 Update: The NY Times just reported that the EU is backing down on the severity of tariffs it is going to levy against Chinese solar panels during the next few months while negotiations are underway with Beijing to seek a permanent solution to the issue. It is clear the European Commission felt pressured to lower the tariff rate from 47% to 11% because of uncertain support from several member states, namely Germany.