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Foreign Policy

A New Definition for China-Europe Relations

Apr 11, 2019
  • Feng Zhongping

    Director, Institute of European Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS)

From March 21 to 26, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid state visits to Italy, Monaco, and France. The visits attracted broad international attention not only as Xi’s first overseas trip of 2019, but also because the European Council just released its China policy paper entitled “EU-China: A Strategic Outlook,” prompting heated discussion about whether the EU’s China policy has undergone significant changes. In fact, the day President Xi arrived in Italy, the first stop of his trip, EU heads of state were holding their summit in Brussels. One topic on their agenda was the EU’s China policy.

In the China-EU relationship, Chinese opinions about Europe and European policies have shown considerable stability. Though many European nations have gone through considerable crises and challenges, and European integration has almost stagnated due to lack of popular support, the overall Chinese perception of Europe has hardly changed. China still believes Europe is of critical significance to itself, and the EU and its members can play an important role in global governance.

For China, the EU’s importance comes first and foremost from economics and trade. For over a decade, the EU has remained China’s largest trading partner, without change despite the troubles Europe has encountered. According to Chinese statistics, bilateral trade reached $682.2 billion in 2018, increasing 10.6 percent year on year. Meanwhile, at multilateral institutions such as the UN and G20, European nations always support multilateralism and oppose unilateralism, making China believe Europe can play an active role in global governance.

Yet it is worth serious attention that major changes are taking place in European perceptions of China. The European Commission policy document made two new judgments about China. One is that “the balance of challenges and opportunities presented by China has shifted.” The other is that “China can no longer be regarded as a developing country.” Based on these new judgments, the EU document defined four new aspects of China’s identity, namely “a cooperation partner with whom the EU has closely aligned objectives, a negotiating partner with whom the EU needs to find a balance of interests, an economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership, and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.” Such a new and specific definition of China’s role is unprecedented in EU relations with China.

The aforementioned China policy document has been approved by the European Council, i.e. European heads of state. China-EU relations will change in the future in the following two ways. First, the EU will seek broader cooperation with China on multilateral international forums. Not only does China believe Europe has an important role to play in global governance, the EU is even more convinced that responding to climate change would be empty talk without China’s active participation. Besides climate change, the EU document emphasized cooperation with China in safeguarding the rules-based international order, supporting effective multilateralism, and promoting implementation of the 2030 sustainable development agenda. Second, the competitive aspect of China-EU relations will increase in the future, and the EU will be more vigilant against China.

In fact, some of these changes have already taken place. The EU passed its first ever foreign investment review legislation, which was mainly targeted at so-called “strategic investments” by Chinese firms in European nations. Recently, German economic minister Peter Altmaier and French finance minister Bruno Le Maire, during their meeting in Berlin, discussed the establishment of a new “technological alliance” in future technologies based on the AirBus model of transnational cooperation. According to Altmaier, this is meant to safeguard European “technological sovereignty,” so as to cope with offensives by global rivals.

How should China deal with the latest changes in EU China policy? As two of the world’s three largest economic entities, both China and Europe have benefited tremendously from economic and trade cooperation. In order to sustain such a pattern in the future, both parties must strive to make sure their increasing competition stays benign, rather than vicious. President Xi stated this while meeting French and German leaders as well as European Commission Chairman Jean-Claude Juncker.

China and Europe should enhance strategic mutual trust in order to carry out effective cooperation in international affairs, and actively cope with global challenges. Currently, the two parties need to focus on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and conducting active dialogue through the “16+1” format, increasing trust and reduce suspicion. The BRI is essentially a proposal for economic cooperation; there is no Chinese geopolitical consideration in it, nor is there an attempt to promote the establishment of a new international order. As to the “16+1” format, which is aimed at boosting Chinese cooperation with Central and Eastern European nations, China has explicitly pledged that the cooperation projects it carries out with relevant countries will observe EU laws and regulations. In general, only when China and the EU take advantage of all available channels of dialogue, increase communication, reduce misunderstanding and misgivings, can they continuously expand common interests and formulate a true relationship based on comprehensive strategic partnership.

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