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Foreign Policy

Cooperation Is the Key

Jun 18, 2020
  • Feng Zhongping

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

Interactions between China and the European Union increased notably in June. President Xi Jinping had phone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. Then the China-EU Strategic Dialogue was held via video link. Now both sides are preparing the online China-EU Summit, which is set for the end of this month.

These activities send a signal: Cooperation remains the defining trend of China-EU relations.

This positive message is of great importance not only for bilateral relations but also for global economic recovery and development in the post-pandemic period.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and the European Union. Both sides had made plans for high-level meetings and other activities to celebrate. But the COVID-19 pandemic, which took the world by surprise, has upset all plans. More important, an increase in negative views of China — the result of the pandemic, as well as changes in EU policy toward China in recent years — have raised public concerns about future relations.

Traditionally, the diplomatic and strategic priority for the EU is internal, followed by its most important ally, the United States, and its largest neighbor, Russia. At the same time, countries in the neighborhood, including regions around the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, are moving up higher on the EU agenda.

Probably, the biggest change in China-EU relations over the past two or three years is that the EU and its member states have directed more attention to China. In fact, in their foreign policies, China holds a position virtually on par with the U.S. and Russia.

But the reasons for growing EU interest in China are mixed. Europeans want to forge stronger cooperation with China because they know what bilateral cooperation means. Economically, China is the world’s second-largest economy and the Chinese market, which has translated potential into reality, beckons Europe.

Internationally, since China plays a big role in global multilateral organizations, Europe hopes to work with it to uphold multilateralism in global affairs.

On the other hand, Europe is more interested in China because it has felt the pressure of competition as China grows.

These two lines of thought also find expression in EU policy toward China. For example, the 2016 EU policy paper on China suggests that Europe needs to adhere to “principled realism” in its dealings with China.

In its 2019 document “EU-China: A Strategic Outlook,” the EU makes it clear that China is a complicated country to deal with, and that in different policy areas it is simultaneously a cooperative partner, a competitor and a rival.  

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, China and the EU have engaged in active cooperation, but tensions have  also emerged. On June 10, for example, the European Commission said in a report that China and Russia were spreading misinformation about the virus online. Some European media accused China of lack of transparency in its pandemic response, and even demanded accountability and compensation.

In another instance, news articles about China’s assistance to some pandemic-plagued European countries, such as Italy, were seen by some as intended to create division within the bloc. In addition, many European countries are concerned about their excessive dependence on imports of medical equipment from China and there is now a heated debate on the security of supply and production chains across the region.

In light of growing high-level interactions and statements made by leaders on both sides, however, we can see that cooperation remains the defining trait in China-EU relations. Cooperation not only serves the interests of the two but also leaves a positive imprint on the world.

The top priority is to lift the world economy out of recession. Nations around the world have discussed solutions to many issues, including post-pandemic economic recovery, globalization, global governance, green development and sustainability. In this context, stronger China-EU economic ties in the spirit of cooperation are conducive to the economic recovery of both sides, and more important, of the entire world.

As President Xi said in his phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the launch of the China-Germany “fast track” program, which is designed to help employees of German companies to re-enter China on special flights, will help enterprises in both countries to speed up the resumption of business and protect the stability of global industrial and supply chains. At the same time, China-Germany cooperation will give the world economy a boost as it climbs out of recession.

In addition, China and the EU will add a dose of certainty to the world as they show their commitment to multilateralism and together respond to global challenges. Both sides believe that the pandemic is continuing to spread, and so it’s important to continue to support the important role of the World Health Organization and enhance cooperation on global public health security.

French President Emmanuel Macron, in his phone call with Xi, said that France stands ready to join forces with China to enhance cooperation in a wide range of areas, including climate change and biological diversity, within multilateral frameworks. This also will inject positive elements into international relations and promote world peace and stability. 

In the second half of this year, Germany will take over the rotating presidency of the European Union. The China-EU Summit, which was originally scheduled for September in Leipzig, Germany, has been postponed because of the pandemic. But we have every reason to believe that China-EU relations will continue to move forward as both sides forge closer cooperation. 

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