Amid conflict and confrontation, the major global powers express their differing views at Davos

Senior representatives from Washington, Beijing and Brussels present their approaches to a period that, according to the EU’s Ursula von der Leyen, represents the ‘greatest risk to the global order since the postwar era’

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen attending a meeting with business representatives during World Economic Forum in Davos.HANDOUT (AFP)
Andrea Rizzi (special correspondent)

As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen summarized on Tuesday in Davos, the world is going through “an era of conflict and confrontation, of fragmentation and fear” that represents “the greatest risk to the global order in the post-war era.” The opening day of the World Economic Forum demonstrated the severity of the risks, including the current crises — Ukraine and the Middle East — and the great, all-encompassing power struggle. Senior representatives from Beijing, Washington and Brussels disembarked in Davos, Switzerland, to argue their positions before what is probably the most powerful audience in the world: a confluence of economic, political, technological and opinion leaders.

A cross-reading of the approaches of these three major global players — the two superpowers, the United States and China, and the EU — is not reassuring. There is no surefire way to keep the competition between the first two from turning into a confrontation, nor is there a guaranteed way for the EU to succeed in building its secure autonomy and contributing to a world based more on rules than on force.

China’s Premier Li Qiang, who is leading the country’s large delegation to Davos, began the speeches. He agreed with Von der Leyen’s diagnosis that, after decades of progress, “trust has been eroded” and needs to be rebuilt. Without naming the United States, Li made several attacks on the US based on two underlying political complaints: the first is opposition to the restrictive trade measures promoted by Washington, which believes that Beijing is abusing free trade and exploiting Western technology for shady purposes; the second is US reluctance to make way for a reform of the world order that establishes shared and accepted rules with a very different balance of power than the post-war period.

Li Qiang, Prime Minister of the People's Republic of China
Li Qiang, Prime Minister of the People's Republic of China, on a screen as he speaks during a plenary session in the Congress Hall at the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland.GIAN EHRENZELLER (EFE)

“We should go for multilateralism. It is the right direction,” Li said in response to a question in a plenary session. “But what are the rules? Who sets the rules? If the rules are defined by only a few countries, then we will have to put quotation marks around the word multilateralism. It must be based on rules recognized by the whole community,” he said. This approach is in line with multiple declarations that Beijing and Moscow signed, calling for a change to the global order, which they consider to be abusively dominated by the West.

Earlier in his speech, Li offered a range of proposals to rebuild the broken trust through the levers of economic cooperation. Those included suggestions to strengthen the major countries’ coordination of macroeconomic policies and a range of ideas that can be summarized as rejecting trade barriers and protectionism, maintaining the fluidity of supply chains and relying on product specialization.

Distrust between the US and China

That is largely the expression of a desire to return to the situation before tensions between the US and China worsened, when the Asian giant was able to grow spectacularly. But there is an absolute consensus in Washington — perhaps the only one in hyperpolarized US politics — that it can no longer trust China’s rise and serene incorporation into the world order, after the Asian giant’s years of abusing a framework that gave it an advantage, and that providing it with cutting-edge technology to support military and security forces, the future use of which is uncertain, would be suicidal.

A few months ago, White House security advisor Jake Sullivan gave a speech in which he detailed the current US president’s vision of the economic and technological fields as essential pillars of security strategy. Hence the US restrictions on exporting strategic technologies, like high-end microchips, to China. In Davos, Sullivan used his plenary speech to say that, in his opinion, Washington’s restrictive measures toward China are not a “blockade” but rather actions limited to specific areas. Thus, he responded to a between-the-lines interpretation of Li’s speech, which insinuated that restrictive attitudes impede the progress of the less prosperous. Sullivan also defended the Biden administration’s policies on the Middle East crisis.

Significantly, Washington’s top representatives in Davos are Sullivan himself and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a tandem associated with diplomacy and security, while Beijing chose to send the premier, who traditionally serves as a reference on economic issues. Indeed, Li used his speech to announce that the Chinese economy will grow by 5.2% in 2023.

Here, the Biden administration seeks to consolidate its policy of strengthening Washington’s international alliances, which Trump had disturbed, to close ranks with them in the face of Putin’s challenge, to try to find ways to resolve the conflict in Gaza and to convince allies and companies of the need to reduce dependency on China, which the US believes could prove dangerous. Blinken did not make any public speeches on Tuesday; instead, he took advantage of the forum to hold bilateral meetings.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken walks from panel to panel at the Annual Meeting of World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.Associated Press/LaPresse (APN)

“To regain trust, prejudices must be eliminated,” Li said. That was another indirect dig at Washington, which Li accuses of acting based on speculation about future behavior. On several occasions, the premier tried to link his advocacy of free trade in technology — which is in Beijing’s interest — to benefits for developing countries as well. He slipped in the idea that it is unacceptable that “new technologies only benefit a few.”

Li was followed by Von der Leyen, who sought to present the EU as a geopolitical actor that can “lead a response” that rebuilds broken trust and the fragmented global situation, amid competition that we have “not seen in decades.” She also mentioned the EU as a leader in “overcoming huge challenges,” from regional crises to climate change, from the advent of artificial intelligence to geographical changes.

Von der Leyen vindicated the EU’s resilience, noting its ability to quickly free itself from energy dependence on Russia, and she underscored the momentous opening of negotiations for Ukraine’s accession. Kyiv’s entry into the EU “will be Europe’s answer to the call of history,” she said.

As for the Ukrainian crisis, President Volodymir Zelenskiy also spoke in Davos. He did not want to attach too much importance to the current US and EU difficulties in unblocking new aid for Kiev, but he harshly criticized the members’ hesitation to deliver weapons in the past; in his opinion, that led to “lost opportunities.” Zelenskiy flatly rejected diplomatic solutions to “freeze” the conflict: “Putin is a predator who does not settle for frozen products.” The only solution, Zelenskiy said, is a “just and lasting peace.” His speech clearly contextualized the initiative to hold a summit to push for peace in Ukraine, which was announced in Bern the previous day.

In regard to the EU, throughout her speech, Von der Leyen emphasized the risk of disinformation as a threat that can undermine the operational capacity of democracies. She defended the regulatory measures that the EU has taken so far in the technological field but expressed her determination that Brussels serve not only as a regulatory actor, but also as a driver of European technological capabilities. She announced that the EU will allow start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises to access its supercomputers, “similar to what Microsoft is doing with ChatGPT, running it on its own supercomputers.” That represents an attempt to compete in the strategic technology race.

Von der Leyen also briefly took stock of European actions to “reduce the risks” of dependency, a concept she presented at Davos last year that was subsequently very successful, supplanting the earlier idea of “decoupling” that was widely circulated in Washington. Her speech also mentioned the risk inherent in China’s first measures to restrict strategic material exports and Chinese companies’ strong dominance in green technology sectors.

Significantly, however, Von der Leyen did not utter a single word related to the Gaza conflict in her speech. That is a clear indication of the members’ serious divisions on this issue, one of the flashpoints in this risk-filled world. It is evidence of the EU’s serious problems being an effective geopolitical actor in the “era of conflict and confrontation” that the president of the European Commission described.

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