What to be wary of in robust EU strategy toward China?

By Zhang Bei Source:Global Times Published: 2020/5/31 21:48:41

Photo: IC

In the recent Annual German Ambassadors' Conference, EU High Representative Josep Borrell made a speech addressed to his German host that mainly conveyed high expectations for Germany after it taking the positions of both presidencies of the UN Security Council and the Council of the EU later this year. Borrell offered European observations for China-Europe relations in the post-pandemic era. In particular, he called for a "robust new strategy" toward China. 

In fact, Borrell's remark is just one among a litany of reflections in Europe on China during the process of a pandemic. Some comments are far more sensational. Cases in point include the prediction that there will be a "paradigm shift" or a "complete rethink" of Europe's policy toward China after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, when we look into what Borrell really implies in this "new robust strategy," we see elements that have been emphasized repeatedly in the last couple of years by the European side. 

First, Europe makes decisions based on its own values and interests. Second, Europe should not be turned into an instrument of the China-US rivalry. Third, Europe speaks and acts as one on the global stage. 

Actually, this thinking is a more or less a consensus on how Europe should cope in a perceived, strange world. In Europe's eyes, the old world is disappearing rapidly and the new world is not friendly either. The global leader, Europe's long-time friend and ally, is not only unhelpful, but sometimes even destructive, while the bloc is taking its stable economic partner, which has lucrative market, as a competitor. These two are engaged in a rivalry where the pressure, mainly from the US, for Europe to take sides is mounting. 

Informed by this perception, Europe on a whole has made quite a lot of adjustments. During the past couple of years, it has steadily built on the concept of a "sovereign" Europe for security, economics and industrial terms. 

In relation to Europe's policy toward China, it is clear the bloc has become much more "robust" already and pushing for more "reciprocity." The creation of EU's new instruments to screen investments and enforce antitrust measures is also example of that. Just also remember that both the European Industrial strategy and digital strategy have competition with China in mind. 

Europe's changing perception and policy adaptation toward China is not unnatural as the global order shifts - and as great changes unseen for more than a hundred years compel state actors to cope and manage like never before. 

China, seeing Europe as a partner, is working to solve problems and address Europe's concerns in economic cooperation. We aim for more coordination with Europe on global issues which so the two sides are increasingly on the same page. This year is supposed to be a big year for China-Europe relations, with three summits and an on-going bilateral investment treaty negotiation. China will make use of these opportunities to work with Europe and strive for a stable and promising future. 

However, there are still alarming signs in the aforementioned litany of predictions in Europe on China-Europe relations in the post-pandemic era. People who are committed to defending China-Europe partnership should stay wary.

First, a perceived "over dependence" on China during the pandemic, such as important medicines and personal protective equipment, has made popular talk of "diversification of some value chains." In a world where the threat of decoupling of the biggest two economies is real, is Europe confident that this "diversification" is not a form of "disengagement" or "managed disengagement?"

Second, Europe is clearly seeking more self-protection with new policy innovations, such as investment screening. But how can Europe make sure protection does not lead to protectionism? This sort of tactic avowedly rejects the sort of economic recovery that is needed now. 

Third, Europe seems to stress more "value" dimensions of its policy toward China. Despite the fact that China respects Europe's commitments to its own value system, a so-called value-based policy is turning into interference into China's own affairs. This posture will greatly damage the trust China and Europe have built up together for years. 

The author is assistant research fellow at the Department for European Studies, China Institute of International Studies. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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