2017 is witnessing the likely clash of big-power nationalisms, triggered – within days – by Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States.
A striking characteristic of the Trump administration is its attitude to China. During the campaign the President threatened to impose very high tariffs on Chinese imports (as he is now on Mexico to build his Wall). But abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership leaves China in the driving seat as far as trade policy in East Asia is concerned.
Trump wants to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip in negotiations with China. Adding a conflict over the island’s status to this trade` mix could have very unpredictable results. China is historically very sensitive to western ’humiliations’ and threats to its raw material supply lines.
There will a fanning of nationalist sentiment on both sides – less than 50 years after Nixon brought the two sides closer together for the first time.
The economic transformation of China is the most important global economic event of the past 40 years. It has changed the balance of power on the Eurasian landmass in ways we are only beginning to comprehend. It has led to an increasing number of well-off, high spending consumers.
But the income gap is very wide. Stress is high. There is a two-tier labour market under which long-established city residents qualify for social support, but recent arrivals in the same cities do not. The latter group can remain in a precarious situation for years.
This gap presents a problem of political management. The Communist leadership may choose to foment nationalist sentiment/resentment to shore up support and distract attention from the uneven distribution of the fruits of prosperity.
Chinese nationalism could, all too easily, collide fatally with the American nationalism that the Trump campaign has rekindled.
Faced with this collision, Europe should look to its own interests – especially as it seems likely that the US will move closer to Russia. The new dynamic this possible Russo-American rapprochement creates in global affairs will impact Europe.
Russia has traditionally been hostile to the EU because it has felt excluded from pan-European security structures. It feels hemmed in by NATO members, right up to its borders; fears are growing it might try to destabilise, even invade, Baltic states now that Trump talks of Nato as “obsolete.” It has given support to parties in western Europe such as France’s Front National that are hostile to EU integration. A disintegrated Europe would be like manna to Russia. And now Trump’s nominee to be US Ambassador to the EU, Ted Malloch, is singing from the same hymn book.
So the EU may find its interests more aligned with China’s – in fields such as climate change and energy. Unlike the US, Europe does not have vast energy resources and is much more dependent on an open global trading system – like China.
Europe is both a crowded and an ageing continent. Its voters tend to think about short-term issues, not about the long-term impact of decisions the EU may make about relationships with the rest of the world. They need to think very carefully about where their protest votes may lead: they can have long-lasting consequences far beyond mere protest.
A disunited Europe could become a playground for the clash of great power rivalries. Individual European countries could find themselves being used as pawns in this wider struggle. There are many ancient and buried antagonisms that could be exploited on this continent if European unity is broken.
The UK, which did so much to defend the liberty of Europe in 1914 and 1939, forgot this completely when it voted so recklessly in its recent referendum.
The rest of Europe must not make the same mistake.