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Foreign Policy

Repairing the EU-China Relationship Requires Pragmatism and Flexibility

May 28, 2021
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) between the European Union (EU) and China has hit a snag, after a majority of MEPs (599 to 30, with 58 abstentions) voted to freeze discussion of the agreement in the European Parliament. 

Politicians in the European Parliament cite China’s recent decisions to counter-sanction EU think-tanks, academics, and prominent political figures within the EU as the trigger, though it would be erroneous to conclude that that’s all there is to it. China-EU relations have hit one trough after another, with spiteful exchanges, terse statements, and an escalating cycle of sanctions coming to characterise bilateral relations between the second and third largest economies (in nominal terms) in the world. 

Chinese diplomats accuse their European counterparts of harbouring double standards, in castigating China for their ripostes whilst imposing hefty financial penalties and reprobation on senior Chinese officials for their ostensible involvement in human rights abuses in Xinjiang (and Hong Kong). On the other hand, European politicians and public alike are caught increasingly off-guard and repelled by what they view as excessive bellicosity from China. 

The EU remains an invaluable trade partner to China – both are the largest trading partner of one another. Its member states have long-established cultural, commercial, and investment ties with what many recognise as a booming, soon-world-leading economy, consumer market, and source of human capital. Many in the EU are considerably more pragmatic on China – they do not share the all-or-nothing, Manichean worldview espoused by an increasingly bipartisan crowd in the United States; nor do citizens in Europe disregard entirely the substantial gains to be derived from closer collaboration with China on issues such as global health management and climate change. Europe is hence not a lost cause. 

Yet if China is serious about winning back the EU, it must do more to ameliorate the root causes of the current malaise – this behooves three specific moves: addressing perceptual disillusionment, dialling down the temperature of the current debate over China’s human rights record, and engaging in more even-handed, mutually beneficial collaboration with European states who have traditionally been the country’s sceptics. 

Firstly, it is in China’s interests to recognise and engage with the public sentiments in Europe. For decades, the country had operated under the assumption that the primary stakeholder it ought to engage comprises national leaders and politicians in the continent – yet this view is only half-correct. Directly elected MEPs and – more indirectly – members of the European Council (who must answer to internal pressures amongst directly elected MPs of their own and associated parties) are ultimately at the behest of their own citizens. Across large swathes of Western and Central Europe, China is viewed as a precipitously totalitarian entity, with its foreign policy and leading companies (e.g. Huawei) deemed to be an affront to European citizens on issues of national security and “democratic values”. 

There are aspects of such perceptions that China cannot control – e.g. inherently Sinophobic conspiracy theories and racist discourses propagated by opportunists and fearmongering politicians. Yet there are also aspects that it clearly can, such as the unnecessarily offensive language adopted by some diplomats, the communications, accountability, and transparency of Huawei, and China’s willingness to make clear its baselines whilst remaining cordial and amicable internationally. These are all means through which China can rehabilitate its image in Europe, without compromising its own growth trajectory and interests – which it is entitled to uphold on behalf of its own population. 

Secondly, when it comes to the ongoing fracas over China’s policies towards Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Beijing’s default response appears to be one of firm repudiation – senior Chinese diplomats believe that the more firmly they ward off those who engage in “human rights preaching” (words from Vice Foreign Minister Qin Gang), the less likely it is that these (or similar) voices would continue to berate China. China’s counter-sanctions, in the eyes of many, were a legitimate move to deter individuals from “speaking ill of the country”. 

Alas, events have not unfolded as such. Many in the European political community were incensed by what they saw as an unprecedented move on China’s behalf to sanction researchers and think-tanks that had typically been viewed as largely centrist and moderate on the country – including, most prominently, MERICS. National leaders broadly sympathetic to China – including Macron and Merkel – have found themselves under substantial public pressure to adopt a more hawkish stance on China. In the latter’s case, the added uncertainty associated with her stepping-down from Chancellorship and the trenchant urn in public perceptions of China have clouded significantly the future of one of China’s sturdiest relationships in the region. 

It would be in all parties’ – China and the EU – interest for Beijing to take the lead in establishing the necessary breathing room, through a mixture of de-escalation in rhetoric and lifting of sanctions, for moderates – in the public and politics alike – to rise again. 

Finally, China should engage in more quantitatively plural and explicitly mutually advantageous trade and investment engagements with European states. Many in Europe have taken issue with what they perceive to be divide-and-conquer tactics adopted by the Chinese, through multilateral initiatives such as the 16+1 China-CEEC. Whilst it is perfectly within Chinese rights to be selective over with whom and how they trade, Beijing would equally benefit from easing the anxieties of those left out of the China-CEEC – including those who have taken issue with the country’s labour rights record. 

This is not to say that China should accept whatever it is offered – but merely that it should be more mindful of optics, needs, and sensitivities in dealing with Western and Continental European states, who are alarmed by what they view as a widening rift within the European community. Beijing would also benefit from improving the transparency and accountability of investment projects – both European ones in China, and Chinese ones in Europe – as a means of assuaging the (at times overblown) worries that it is ostensibly engaging in predatory economic practices. 

Beijing is right to think that there indeed are critics of China who could never be won over – these individuals could be ideologically opposed to China’s political system, or take visceral umbrage at China’s normal economic undertakings. Yet Europe – and its people – is largely not that; a vast majority of Europeans can and should be engaged constructively, in search of a solution that benefits both the EU and China. 

Whether the above would materialise, of course, depends partially also on forces beyond the above prescriptions – the extent to which populist discourses and paranoia over China can be mollified; to which technology companies such as Huawei can fruitfully and meaningfully navigate the legal systems in Europe, or, indeed, whether the Chinese public has appetite for the kind of moderatism preached in this piece. The line between needless aggression and standing one’s ground is thinner than ever – and when it comes to Europe, it behoves Chinese pragmatists to err on the side of serious, serious caution. 

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