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Foreign Policy

My Take-aways from 2020 Munich Security Conference

Feb 23, 2020
  • Fu Ying

    Chair, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University


Munich Security Conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger speaks during the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Feb 14, 2020.

The 56th Munich Security Conference was held on February 14-15, attracting 32 heads of state and government, 77 cabinet ministers among over 1,000 delegates from political, military, academic and business circles. I was invited to participate as a member of its advisory board, and have the following impressions to share.

1, Europe reflects on the West’s status and role, seeking to transcend present difficulties and pursue self-renewal

“Westlessness”, the title of the annual Munich Security Report released on February 10, discusses from a European perspective whether the “West” as the most important geopolitical center since the end of WWI is in decline. Listing the West’s internal imbalances and challenges from the outside world, it laments the fact that the world is increasingly becoming less West, so is the West itself becoming not so west, thus coining the concept of “Westlessness”.

Originating amid the Cold War more than five decades ago, the MSC’s founding mission was to coordinate western stances. After the Cold War, it broadened its horizons and began to pay attention to broader hotspot issues in international security, and its participants have hence expanded from just trans-Atlantic countries to the Middle East and Asia. In recent years, sensitive to the changing international power structure, the MSC has begun to consider how the West should adjust itself and cope with the new landscape. “Westlessness” as this year’s theme has taken the retrospection in the European strategic circles to a new height.

This expression mirrors a prevailing anxiety inside the Western society - worries that the West is losing its dominance in the world order; concerns that the once unified European-American position is being eroded due to the emerging divergences in aspirations and interests; fears that the West-dominated world system may be subject to “revision” by so-called authoritarian forces.

What is the “West”? From the perspective of world history and international politics, the West is a geographical and physical as well as spiritual and institutional existence. Originating from ancient Greece and Rome, the West has gone through stages from city states, the Roman Empire, and the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, colonialist expansion, and eventually to the rise of the United States. It has evolved into a civilizational system which has been constantly enriched and strengthened. The main body of modern westerners consists of European nations and their descendants. Their ideologies and cultures have been profoundly influenced by the Christian faith, and their values are defined by the so-called liberal democracy. These put together constitute the sources of the West’s political and cultural infuence on the world.

At the practical level, in the past three to four centuries, based on maritime and continental expansions and financial hegemony, the West spearheaded military revolution and scientific and technological innovation, and dominated world economic development in the ages of industrialization and even post industrialization. The end of the Cold War saw the US-led West reaching the peak of international power and forcefully pushing for globalization. Then with the rise of emerging forces and reorganization of global industrial chains, the West’s comprehensive strength has been diluted. As the US and Europe’s global promotion of westernization suffered a series of setbacks, its own internal problems have also been fully exposed, making the halo over the West fade. The Europeans are even more aware that the West is no longer able to claim absolute dominance in shaping the political and economic features of the 21st century world.

Judging from discussions at this MSC session, after four years of reflections, European strategic circles are developing clearer views, and the following two perspectives are part of their contributions to the idea of “Westlessness”.

One is the acknowledgement of China’s rise with a mixed feeling of recognition and concern. Though European and US economies put together still account for nearly half of the world’s total, China now accounts for 17 percent of global GDP and its share has kept rising. Asia as a whole accounts for over a third. So the gravity of world economy and international power will inevitably tilt toward the Asia-Pacific. More and more insightful Europeans have come to the understanding that China’s rise is going to be an enduring reality, Europe and the West must make adjustments, and find ways to co-exist peacefully with a China that has a different political system.

The other is the increasing dissatisfaction with the Trump administration’s “America First” policy, seeing the protectionist, isolationist and unilateralist inclinations of US conservatives as having deviated from the fundamental percepts that underpin the liberal international order. The Trump administration has shown disregard for Europe’s interests, and doesn’t bother to consult with Europe on significant issues. This has undercut the foundation of the trans-Atlantic alliance, and caused a further drifting-apart of the two sides. Hence the feeling that Europe needs to formulate its own strategy and “go its own way”.

Europe’s reflections on the West is multi-dimensional. On the one hand, it sees “systemic crises” taking place, but on the other they also believe the West’s “self-consciousness” remains, and will not “end”. They feel uncomfortable about the emerging forces’ integration into the West-dominated world system and their expanding role inside, but are also open to adjusting rules in order to preserve the integrity of the system and maintain co-existence through coordination. So Europe isn’t singing the dirge for the West, but is hoping to conduct pragmatic readjustments at the levels of strategy, values and practice. Europe is watching with worry if the world will slide into fierce competition among the US, China and Russia, and get divided. It attempts to find a new role for itself and seeks to make bigger contributions. Therefore, they stress “transcendence”, namely, internally transcending differences in interests and values and improving capacities for collective actions, while externally transcending the dependence on previous paths and developing a more pluralist, balanced, flexible and pragmatic global strategy.

2, The US is forcefully pressing Europe to take sides in an effort to promote a unified stand for competing with China

The US regarded the MSC as an important platform for promoting policies and coordinating trans-Atlantic positions. Its presence was quite eye-catching, including Nancy Pelosi and 20 or so law-makers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Permanent Representative to the UN Kelly Craft, former Secretary of State John Kerry, and other ranking officials and think tank experts. American representatives and their voices could be found everywhere. And the Americans seemed to take how to cope with China’s rise and “China threat” as their main topic, with their core purpose being preventing European nations from taking 5G technologies of China’s Huawei.

Pompeo’s speech wasn’t long, but he spent a third of his time lambasting China. Obviously not a fan of this year’s MSC report, Pompeo proudly declared the West isn’t in decline and Western values will win over Russia and China’s empire dreams. He asked Europe to jointly cope with the Chinese Communist Party’s increasing “aggressiveness”. Esper in his speech also described Huawei and 5G as “poster child for this nefarious activity”.

Such US fixation on China, and its persistent verbal attacks on Huawei as a private Chinese tech firm didn’t go down too well. And the Americans saw limited support at this point. Indeed some people view the new round of disputes from the perspective of Cold War between the US and Soviet Union, and echoed the US’ attacks on Chinese domestic and foreign policies. But many more who could observe the China-US wrangling with a cool head hoped to know more about the facts, and to find a basis for making judgments consistent with their own interests. US politicians’ heavy-handed approach also inspired antipathy among some of the participants.

3, The China factor was one of MSC’s focus, which saw a combination of suspicion, misunderstanding and expectation

Representing the Chinese government, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi delivered a speech at the conference, which drew a lot of attention and a positive response. Vice Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s remarks at the townhall meeting on COVID-19 was also well-received. I got an opportunity to raise a question when Pelosi rabbled about 5G at the panel on the state of western democracy. She claimed that compromising to China would hurt the democratic system, human rights, economic independence, and national security. I questioned her claim, asking her if the democratic system was so fragile that Huawei could threaten it. Pelosi was evidently more accustomed to attacking China when there were no Chinese present, so she didn’t anticipate being questioned there and then, and also she didn’t seem to be sufficiently familiar with 5G techology, so she was just parroting the prepared script, appearing to have trouble answering my question. Judging from on-the-spot reactions, many appreciated my challenge. But there were also people who defended the US position on Huawei, asserting that China has also shut out members of Western media.

Apart from the main sessions, China was also the focus of the side events. Eleven of the sub-panels set their agendas on China, including such topics as “Taming the Dragon: How the West Must Confront and Engage the China Challenge”, “Partner, Competitor, or Rival? Transatlantic Relations and the China Conundrum”, “How should Europe deal with rising China”, “What if... China and Russia Became Allies”, and “The Future of China's Participation in Arms Control Regimes”. There were also as such specialized panels as on the South China Sea issue, COVID-19 Outbreak, and China’s Internet policies.

I found that wherever there were Chinese present, people would give some thought to their views and how they feel, and what they would say and the questions they raised also attracted attention and often endorsement. After listening to my lunch-time speech, a German scholar said, he felt it is possible to establish trust after hearing me present China’s case. Yet on many occasions and issues, it’s very difficult to hear the Chinese side’s opinions and convincing explanations of significant matters.

Indeed, international relations are similar to inter-personal relations, we need some level of trust as the basis for building relations of cooperation and coordination. Trust-building is an important subject China must face while it gets increasingly closer to the center of the world stage.

4, China’s nationwide efforts to contain the COVID-19 epidemic has received the sympathy and support

The WHO and its experts participated in this MSC session with an unusually high profile, talking at length about the tremendous endeavors made and heavy prices paid by China in fighting the epidemic, calling on the international community to lend a helping hand and join the epidemic control efforts. WHO Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised China for winning time for the world. WHO experts appealed to the world to prepare for the possible further spreading of the epidemic and especially to support China in developing vaccine and medicines.

State Councilor Wang Yi and Vice Foreign Minister Qin Gang elaborateed on the Party and government’s all-out campaign against the epidemic and the people’s unified efforts at the general session and the public health Town-Hall meeting respectively, winning support from the participants. Though there are still biases regarding China, there were increasing voices sympathetic for and supportive of China at the MSC. Summing up the conference on the closing day, MSC Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger said China has truly made great efforts for meeting the tremendous medical challenge, it deserves support and encouragement, instead of being criticized and blamed. Some people from European business communities expressed hope that China would come up with concrete lists of needs, so as to facilitate targeted donations.

WHO experts believe despite the twists in coping with the epidemic, China displayed strong capabilities. If China’s experiences can be summed up and developed into models and templates for other nation as reference, it will be valuable international public goods.

One thing I learned from this MSC session is that as China-US relations become tense and deteriorate, the role of such third-parties as Europe becomes both important and valuable. Most of these countries don’t want to see China-US fall into vicious competition resulting in the division or collapse of the international system, or China-US technological decoupling impeding human progress. They hope China may play a more active role in preserving global common interests, expect China to sincerely preserve multilateralism, rather than take a selective approach to multilateralism out of self interest just like the US. Meanwhile, they are striving to safeguard Europe’s own interests and position amid a changing global order. Against the backdrop of China-US competition, Europe can’t play outsider, but it’s not willing to take sides, and wants to play a greater role itself. And the strategy of checks and balances Europe adopts has contributed to enhancing global multilateralism. Therefore, we should communicate more with all parties, increase mutual understanding, enhance the world’s consensus on and synergy for promoting the building of a community with a shared future.

(Extracted from China Daily website)

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