Europe's anomalous response to China's influence

By George N. Tzogopoulos Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/18 10:45:11

Relations between China and the European Union have recently entered a turbulent phase. The European bloc is suspiciously viewing the former's investments. The beginning was made in October 2016, a difficult month for Sino-German and generally Sino-European relations. At that time, Berlin decided to halt approval for the Chinese takeover of chip equipment maker Aixtron. It was not alone. Washington was behind the decision and raised concerns about Aixtron being a key supplier of certain gallium nitride technologies, which are used by NATO defense contractors. As a result, the Chinese side withdrew its bid and the German government started to think of measures to increase the level of scrutiny for foreign takeovers and push for a relevant policy at the EU level. 

Since this turnaround, several politicians in Germany - to larger degree Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in comparison to Chancellor Angela Merkel - have set the new tone vis-à-vis China. China is no longer only a partner. It can be also a competitor, even an adversary. France and Italy agreed with Germany and the European Commission almost immediately shared the approach. In his 2017 State of the Union address, its President Jean Claude Juncker proposed a new EU framework for investment screening. Without directly referring to China, he talked about the need for transparency, scrutiny and debate when "a foreign, state-owned, company wants to purchase a European harbor, part of energy infrastructure or a defense technology firm."

In this context, several European scholars - many based in Germany - are providing one-sided analyses on China's role in international affairs. In particular, they are heavily criticizing Beijing for its practices. They are also expressing skepticism on its growing influence, which, they say, is expanding to European elites, media, public opinion, civil society and academia. They conclude this might be dangerous for European values. 

Europe certainly lacks experts on Chinese affairs. Although some can speak Chinese, their writing has a predictability about it:  Western theories of international relations. Various analysts, for instance, adhere to the theory of liberal institutionalism and hope for a change in governance of other countries through enhanced cooperation and multilateralism or aggressive foreign policy. Theory is obviously different from practice and results - especially in the Middle East - are telling. 

British Prime Minister Theresa May is a pragmatist in that regard. In a speech she gave last year at the Republican Party "Congress of Tomorrow" conference in the US, she acknowledged that "The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over." This excerpt from her speech reflects how world politics will evolve in the future, with emerging powers such as China playing an active role. 

European scholars, who easily blame China, fail to adjust their writings to reality. Instead of looking at May's realism, they prefer to negatively interpret the country's presence in Europe. And they go further as they are developing their own explanations for the constructed risk. Some believe that the Chinese government sought domestic stability through external investments. Others argue that China aimed at imposing its own political and economic model on European states. And others say China attempted to divide the EU.

The EU has of course every right to protect its perceived interests. This is fair. Nonetheless, there is a large gap between proposing its own scheme for the future evolution of its relations with China and finding a new enemy in Asia's most powerful country. European experts should first look at EU failures before transferring responsibilities to others.  

All in all, the EU and subsequently some European scholars are not looking at the root of the ongoing crises and only seek to mitigate consequences. China's critical advantage remains its ability to persuade politicians and societies to engage in win-win partnerships and investments in fields where the EU is absent or only dictates terms for fiscal discipline and austerity. 

In the final account, Europe has openly invited China to invest. And now that this has started yielding results, some European experts are worrying. It would have been wiser for them to focus on patterns of closer cooperation rather than on keeping out recommendations. 

The author is a lecturer at the European Institute in Nice, France.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

blog comments powered by Disqus