Event Report | December 07, 2009

Trilateral Cooperation in the 21st Century: First Summary Report of the Trialogue21 Initiatve

From 2006 to 2008, the EastWest Institute (EWI) and the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) co-organized the first three annual discussions of the Trialogue21 initiative – an off-the-record process involving public and private sector leaders from China, the United States and Europe. The meetings, which were held in Berlin (December 2006), Beijing (November 2007), and Washington, D.C. (December 2008), served as an annual review of relations among the three powers and addressed a wide range of common domestic and foreign policy concerns.

This report summarizes the key outcomes of the discussions during the three meetings.  Despite the divergent strategic perceptions and priorities of China, the United States, and Europe, one general conclusion was that all three sides have a significant role to play in addressing a broad range of common challenges, including weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, violent extremism, and energy and environmental security.  At the same time, while the United States and the European Union expect and want China to play an increasingly important role in tackling global problems, they are also worried about its growing influence.  All three sides need to be honest about their expectations and perceptions of one another in order to address this “engagement paradox” and cooperate more effectively.

Specific recommendations were also developed for how the three powers can work together and with the international community in the following areas:

  • Peace and security cooperation:  This includes police and military cooperation to counter terrorism and violent extremism along with greater attention to longer-term security concerns such as the environment, the global economy, and the management of conflicts over natural resources.
  • Security of African resources:  All three parties have an interest in Africa’s natural resources. Opportunities for cooperation include infrastructure development and economic reconstruction, coordination of Official Development Assistance (ODA) policies, and Chinese engagement in visible public-private partnerships to counter perceptions of its role in Africa.
  • Energy security cooperation:  Appropriate international or bilateral mechanisms are needed for greater policy coordination among energy-producer, -consumer and -transit countries, and for ad hoc emergency responses to energy market fluctuations.  Stronger public-private partnerships and tax incentives are needed encourage clean energy technologies.
  • Managing the effects of globalization:  A China-U.S.-EU trilateral strategic economic dialogue was suggested to help build trust and manage backlash against globalization.  Since countries and regions now have to deal with similar issues such as social safety nets, port and airport security, environmental sustainability, and cross-border trade, governments and other stakeholders should coordinate and develop best practices for managing these challenges.  Shared surveys on local perceptions toward globalization and its effects would facilitate more effective policy coordination to manage those effects.
  • Responding to the global financial crisis:  Financial sector reform should address financial rules and procedures in addition to institutions.  Sustainable economic development measures over the immediate and medium terms can address a broad range of areas, including credit flow, the international tax regime, and assistance to less developed regions.  The role of bilateral preferential trade agreements should be reassessed to ensure that the multilateral free trade system is not compromised.  Especially during a financial crisis, private philanthropy can complement official development efforts.

Besides providing these policy recommendations, Trialogue21 evolved into an early warning mechanism for probable future scenarios and common challenges.  Moving forward, the key is how China, the United States and Europe can coordinate responses to address such potential developments in a timely manner.

Equally significantly, the discussions served to address, clarify and even change perceptions and misperceptions among the participating regions on several fronts.  For example, China’s international energy activities and its strategic intentions were extensively discussed, with the Chinese participants taking pains to explain China’s “peaceful development” and the challenges it still faces.  While the Chinese sought greater understanding from their Western counterparts about their culture, history, and concerns over territorial integrity, the American and European participants pointed to the need for China to reconcile its different identities as a fast developing country in economic terms and an emerging power in political and military terms.

Meanwhile, the European participants sought to explain the difficulties of the EU in forming a single foreign or security policy due to the overriding national interests of its member states.  And participants were interested in the future direction of American foreign policy, including the U.S. response to an increasingly multipolar world, the way forward in areas such as Iraq, and the new policy priorities under the Obama administration and its management of the financial crisis.

Over time, there was a gradual but discernible shift in the language and mentality of the participants in the discussions – from the “us versus them” approach to a focus on how all three sides could collectively address the myriad common challenges they face.  There was a recognition of the value of the China-U.S.-Europe trilateral relationship in coordinating responses to transnational challenges such as regional security concerns, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, climate change, and the global financial crisis – all of which require multilateral cooperation.

A note of caution was also sounded about keeping expectations in check:  Misperceptions among the three parties will persevere.  It is therefore important to maintain the will and appropriate mechanisms for continued trust-building and dialogue.  Participants also agreed that it was important to systematically incorporate aspects of the Trialogue21 discussions in their dialogues with other partners, and to convey the messages from these discussions to policymakers and public opinion leaders.