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Foreign Policy

China-EU Opportunities and Challenges

Apr 29, 2021
  • Feng Zhongping

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

There has been some degree of tension in relations between China and the European Union lately. On March 22, the EU Foreign Ministers Meeting announced sanctions against China, citing alleged human rights issues in Xinjiang. It was the first time the EU had taken such a step in the last 30 years, and it will undoubtedly have a serious negative impact on bilateral ties.

China pushed back immediately. While the EU sanctions on China involved four persons and one entity, the Chinese ones cover 10 persons and four entities on the EU side.

It is noteworthy that both sides have made efforts to prevent ties from deteriorating. On April 7, less than three weeks after sanctions were announced, Chinese President Xi Jinping and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a phone conversation in which both expressed hope that China-Germany and China-EU relations would maintain steady progress.

On April 16, Xi participated in a video summit with Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. The main subject was China-EU cooperation on climate change On the sidelines, the leaders had in-depth discussions about China-EU ties, anti-pandemic collaboration and international and regional issues.

If the China-Germany phone conversation was aimed at containing escalation of China-EU contradictions, the virtual summit sent the message that China and the EU continue to place considerable weight on cooperation on such issues as global governance.

China-EU relations indeed face a new test. The EU’s China policies and some of its member states are under internal and external pressure at once. European anti-China forces have launched attacks on China on the alleged issues of human rights in Xinjiang, democracy in Hong Kong, peace in the Taiwan Strait and international order in the South China Sea.

There is no lack of rational voices in the European public sphere, but massive China-bashing has been more prominent. That the EU officially defined China lately as at once a cooperation partner, economic competitor and systemic rival has to some extent inspired the so-called ideological fighters who have long existed in Western nations.

Since its inauguration, the Biden administration has intensified efforts to win over Europe and enhance bilateral coordination on China policies, resulting in the EU getting tough on China. Many Chinese were concerned about the four-nation summit of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India that Biden convened, as well as the “2+2” meetings with U.S. secretaries of state and defense and their Japanese and South Korean counterparts.

The fact is, however, that the new U.S. administration has focused more on European allies. Biden has been vocal about the U.S. coming back (which is mainly targeted at his European audience) to offset the Trump presidency’s negative impact on transatlantic relations and to formulate a U.S.-EU united front against China. Biden himself has participated in the virtual Munich Security Conference and summit meeting with leaders of EU countries. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also personally visited Europe, participating in both the NATO foreign ministers meeting and consulting with the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. EU sanctions against China and the formulation of its Indo-Pacific strategy were both outcomes of internal and external factors, which indicate that EU-U.S. coordination on China has made progress.

Despite the aforementioned challenges and the fact that China-EU relations face practical tests at present, many common interests are also real and undeniable. So there still are important opportunities for cooperation. The Chinese market and strong economic recovery have tremendous appeal to European nations. In her phone conversation with President Xi and in a recent video summit, German Chancellor Merkel reiterated this, pointing out that it’s good news for the world that China has taken the lead in recovering economic growth. Germany attaches great importance to the opportunities China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) has presented for Germany-China and EU-China cooperation, and is willing to deepen mutually beneficial economic and trade cooperation, enhance communication on such matters as the digital economy and cybersecurity, treat companies from all countries equally and avoid resorting to trade barriers.

President Xi took advantage of the video summit with the French and German leaders to emphasize that China will expand higher-level opening-up and create a fair, just, nondiscriminatory business environment for foreign-invested companies, including those from France and Germany. After the sanctions episode, some European media speculated that official communication between Germany and China would be affected. Merkel stated clearly that the German side is willing to work with China to prepare for a new round of government-to-government consultations. In addition to economic and trade cooperation, the Chinese and EU sides are both deeply convinced it is of critical significance to strengthen cooperation under a multilateral framework to cope with such global challenges as climate change.

In evaluating China-EU ties, one should, on one hand, see the differences and contradictions between the two sides and the impacts of the Biden administration’s rapid mending of fences with the EU; on the other hand, one should be aware that U.S. interests don’t equal those of the EU. Even though, unlike Trump, Biden has gone to great lengths to trumpet the confrontation between democracy and autocracy to reinvigorate the U.S.-European values alliance. But the fact that such European nations as Germany and France openly oppose a new Cold War with China is precisely because they believe confronting China goes against European interests.

The next few years will be critical for global order, especially for relations between major countries. China and Europe on one hand need to manage and adapt to the new condition of increasing competitiveness in their relationship and find a new model of relations that is pragmatic, rational and balanced. On the other hand, they need to increase communication and cooperation to prevent the world from renewing the pattern of major power confrontation. 

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