Great power rivaly plays out in serial conference speeches
Merkel hits out at U.S. threat of tariffs on European cars
If China and the U.S. are in the midst of a divorce, Europeans look increasingly like the children.
That was the impression given by a series of back-to-back appearances on Saturday, from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Chinese politburo member Yang Jiechi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The speeches put growing great power rivalries on display, but with Europe more the object of a custody battle than a participant.
Speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference, Yang looked like he was trying to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European Union allies, singling out transatlantic differences over multilateralism and technology investment.
He spent much of his speech extolling the virtues of cooperation, international organizations and free trade, popular in Europe, and attacked the dangers of "protectionism," as well as “hegemony and power politics." The U.S. wasn’t named, but the target was clear.
Yang disputed Pence’s warnings that Chinese technology giant Huawei Technologies Co. would expose European 5G networks to the risk of espionage and suggested that Europeans deserve more respect from their traditional ally.
“I hope some Americans will have a bit more confidence in themselves and be a little more respectful to people, people in the so-called old world,’’ said Yang, a former Chinese ambassador to the U.S., using a common American euphemism for Europe. “People all know where their interests lie, so let there be fewer lecturers.’’
Tensions With U.S.
Lavrov invited the EU to create an integrated economic space in Eurasia with Russia and echoed President Vladimir Putin’s recent public endorsement of French-led plans to build a European army.
“Whether the EU will be allowed to do that is another matter,’’ he added caustically.
There is no shortage of tension in the EU-U.S. alliance for potential rivals to exploit.
Pence repeated his demand for Europe to fall in line with more aggressive U.S. policies toward Iran and accused the EU of undermining its efforts to isolate the government in Tehran by creating a vehicle to help investors avoid U.S. sanctions. He also drew a comparison between Iran and Nazi Germany, following a trip to the Auschwitz death camp site on Friday.
"One lesson of that dark chapter of human history is that when authoritarian regimes breathe out vile anti-Semitic hatred and threats of violence, we must take them at their word," Pence said.
Merkel had restated German support for the Iran nuclear deal only minutes before. She also appealed for the U.S. to consult its allies before any new decision on deployments in Afghanistan, where Germany has more than 1,000 troops. European officials were dismayed by Trump’s failure to consult them on his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.
"Is it a good thing to withdraw troops immediately from Syria, or will that strengthen Iran’s hand and Russia’s hand?" Merkel said through a translator. "We need to talk about that."
Still, she reserved her most aggrieved language for the potential U.S. imposition of tariffs on imports of European automobiles and parts. Echoing industry expectations that a U.S. Treasury report due Sunday will find auto imports to be a threat to U.S. national security, she said she was “shocked’’ by the idea that the U.S. would consider German cars a threat, noting that the biggest plant producing BMWs was in South Carolina.
For all these disputes, there was little sign that either the U.S. or Europeans were ready to break the 70-year alliance built around the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with more American troops and armor engaged in European defense than during the Obama administration. A record bipartisan delegation of U.S. Congress people and former officials, including Pence’s predecessor as vice president, Joe Biden, sought to reassure allies that U.S. President Donald Trump’s American First policies were an aberration.
“The America I see does not want to turn its back on the world, or its allies,’’ Biden said, in what amounted to a domestic U.S. rebuttal to Pence’s speech. “This too shall pass. We will be back.’’
Pence in his speech sought to show the U.S. hasn’t actually gone away and remains the unchallenged leader of the West. He used versions of the word “lead’’ 19 times and argued that increased defense spending among NATO members and the international recognition of National Assembly leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s president show the world is still prepared to follow Trump’s initiative.
“And so,’’ said Pence, “America is leading the free world once again.’’
— With assistance by Glen Carey, Helene Fouquet, and Patrick Donahue
(Corrects title of vice president in second paragraph.)