EU anxiety about China driven by difference in approach

By François Godement Source:Global Times Published: 2019/4/8 17:18:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Italy, Monaco and France came four months after a trip to Spain and Portugal. The 21st EU-China summit will take place on Tuesday, only nine months after the previous one. It would seem that China is placing much attention on Europe. Yet, there has rarely been as much frustration on the part of the EU regarding the state of relations with China, and this frustration comes through quite clearly in the Joint Communication that the European Commission and the European External Action Service, EU-China - A strategic outlook, addressed to the member states prior to their next council meeting, which will have relations with China on its agenda: no longer a developing economy, a systemic rival, and a strategic competitor over economic issues; China is being asked (if the EU Council agrees) to "deliver" on previous commitments.

Meanwhile, after Portugal, Italy signed an agreement on the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative, joining an earlier batch of Eastern European countries (including Bulgaria and Poland) that had also signed on prior to 2015. Collectively, the European member states present at last year's Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing had declined to sign a joint text with China, citing concern about the norms and standards of the project. French President Emmanuel Macron, who had endorsed the goals of the BRI in his speech in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province in January 2018, had nonetheless raised the issue of defining good rules in common.

There is a contradiction in China's separate efforts toward EU member states (and perhaps even more, the five pre-accession candidate states in the Balkans) and its extremely slow pace in reaching agreements with Europe - the EU - as a whole. This contradiction is easily perceived over the gap between the EU and the member states regarding the BRI. 

China has positioned itself as a defender of multilateralism - perhaps more so since the difficulties in China-US trade relations have boiled over. The BRI is perhaps the signature initiative of China abroad, seeking to transform global infrastructure. Yet beyond a common declaration on international rules , there is no practical agreement with the EU on these rules for projects in third countries, and China plays its own game, country by country: It is clearly economies in need that have been signed up - including Italy, whose growth is stunted by a huge public debt. 

In other areas of the relationship with the world's greatest single market, agreements are stalled. A bilateral investment negotiation has been going on for years since 2013. Even an agreement on indications of geographical origins (which would protect Chinese as well as European brands) could not be reached. Differences over human rights have increased. The question arises in Brussels and in some European capitals: Are we too soft in our approach on China, too fixated on areas where joint cooperation (climate, sustainable development) would seem possible? As a result, do Chinese policymakers pay much more attention to the US and their tougher tactics? 

The European Union is not founded on the premise of hard power (although member states and the NATO system make up for that). It is built from the advantages of peace and joint making of rules. When the EU begins to describe China as a systemic rival, there is cause to worry. This is not only about differing political systems. It is also about China moving ahead without enough visible rules. True, China professes a great respect for the UN system - seen as a global democracy where one country equals one vote in principle. But it is not the UN that has laid the basis for global economic growth. It is Europe - and therefore the EU - that has replaced within its borders military conflict with citizens' jousting, and later colonialism with trade and development aid. 

Bridges built by China work, its mobile phones sell, and business partners and member states in Europe will seize opportunities to interact with China. But the gap remains between professions of faith in multilateralism and lack of demonstrated interest for common approaches and rules. 

As we wait and see what comes out of the China-US talks, one hopes that Xi's visit to Europe will serve to demonstrate a practical interest in rules and standards alongside the transactional approach to bargains among nation states. 

The author is a senior advisor at the Institut Montaigne, Paris.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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