Europe-China: A curious conversation

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

Early April in Beijing and the sky is unusually blue, cherry blossoms are in full bloom and the roads are eerily quiet. It’s the Qingming Festival, also called Tomb-Sweeping Day, of commemoration of ancestors. I’m all geared up for discussions with Chinese academics and think tank representatives on relations between China and Europe.

The ups and down of relations between Europe and China and the EU-China “strategic partnership” make interesting reading. Unlike the US, Europe doesn’t see China as a rival or competitor. Never having achieved “super power” status, Europe isn’t too wary of a rapidly-changing world order and the rise of China – and India, ASEAN and others.

Europe isn’t an Asian power but an Asian partner, EU policymakers insist. There is much that the EU and China can do together on the bilateral level and on the global stage. Europe is a strong supporter of China’s new economic transformation agenda. Its mutual, say Chinese officials who insist that despite allegations that Beijing is putting its relations with individual European capitals ahead of ties with the EU, what China really wants is a stronger and more integrated Europe.

Both sides are cooperating on a range of issues, including China’s plans to build a “One Belt, One Road” connectivity network linking Europe and Asia. There is heady talk of an EU-China partnership on urbanisation, building 5G technology and warmer people-to-people relations. Several EU countries have joined the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as founding members.

Chinese colleagues insist that the EU has no business making statements on rising tensions in the South China Sea

This is heartening – but it’s only part of the story. In the discussions in Beijing, Chinese academics make no secret of their frustration at Europe’s stance on two key issues: the EU’s ongoing debate on whether to grant China “market economy status” at the end of the year, and the European arms embargo imposed on Beijing after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

There are accusations that Europe is too easily swayed by American pressure to take a tougher stance against China. And since it is not a “hard” security actor, Chinese colleagues insist that the EU has no business making statements on rising tensions in the South China Sea.

In a globalised world, Europeans argue they have an important stake in Asian maritime security, including the security of trade routes in the South China Sea. And as for following the US line, Europeans are AIIB members despite Washington’s decision to stay out.

Europeans have their own complaints – about market access restrictions facing European exporters and investors and the slow pace of economic reform. China’s overcapacity in sectors such as steel is making life difficult for Europe’s steelmakers, they say.

While China and Europe are negotiating a Bilateral Investment Treaty, Beijing says it’s time the EU and China also embarked on talks on a free trade agreement. Not so fast, is Brussels’ response. The talk can get tough but it’s clear that Europe and China need each other. Trade between the two sides is worth about €1.5bn a day. Chinese investments in Europe are rising. Already an estimated 3 million jobs in Europe depend on relations with China. Beijing needs Europe’s intellectual expertise, technology and experience.

Beijing says it’s time the EU and China also embarked on talks on a free trade agreement. Not so fast, is Brussels’ response

Both sides face the challenge of ensuring growth and jobs, looking after their ageing populations while also providing hope and employment for young people. There is talk of synergies between the EU 2020 agenda for growth and jobs and China’s plans for a “new normal” of lower but high-quality, sustainable and inclusive growth.

As European and Chinese leaders prepare to meet in Beijing in July for their 18th summit, it’s clear that EU-China ties are expanding. Brussels and Beijing talk to each other on multiple topics and in multiple fora. China is a dynamic participant in the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) and is current chair of the G20 group of industrialised and emerging countries. The EU-China conversation is intense, multifaceted – and marked by occasional disagreements and bitterness. But China and Europe are bound by mutual curiosity and growing economic connections. In an unpredictable, divided and volatile world, such bonds are important and valuable.

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