China must abandon ‘China First’ to be a solid partner to Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

This article is part of our special report EU-China: Mending differences.

As China becomes an increasingly important partner for the EU, now is the time to take a strong stance on human rights and make sure Beijing provides fair access to European businesses, writes Marietje Schaake.

Marietje Schaake is a Dutch Democraten 66 MEP in the liberal ALDE group.

With Trump turning away from the EU, many see cooperation with China as a natural reflex. However, we must recognise that there are still many obstacles in the relationship, both in the economic and the political sense. China acts based on what it perceives as its own interest: China first. On climate, the European and Chinese interest seems to converge. On trade, security and human rights, China is charting a very different course. The EU-China summit is an opportunity to stress that the EU is willing to cooperate, but that this can only be done on the basis of respect for international laws and agreements.

Last January in Davos, before CEO and ministers from all over the world, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a speech in which he promoted globalisation. Highlighting the value of free, rules-based trade was a clear move to counter the ‘America First’ narrative of Donald Trump. The rhetorical role reversal between the US and China, was remarkable. The question is now whether China will actually turn these words into actions.

Chinese economic growth has made it a key global trade player alongside the EU and the US. China has benefitted greatly from access to other markets and the rules that the World Trade Organisation has set. But while the EU is an open market, generally allowing for fair and equal treatment of foreign companies, the Chinese market remains closed and difficult for foreign companies. European businesses consistently face problems as Chinese companies often receive help from the government, for example through un-transparent subsidies or simplified procedures. Big infrastructure contracts always seem to be awarded to Chinese contractors. Often, companies with technologically advanced products, need to transfer knowledge before they are allowed into the market at all. These are problems that must be addressed. We may be able to cooperate more closely with China on advancing international rules, but only if China will enforce those rules on its own market in a fair way.

The EU can only convincingly persuade China if the member states form a united front. China does not hesitate to try to divide the member states. By targeting specific sectors, or threatening to take counter measures, China has in the past pressured EU countries to change their positions. Unfortunately this has been effective. If member states only focus on the short term and narrow economic interests instead of the long-term collective interest of the EU, it will be difficult to leverage our weight. In the end, more and fairer market access in China, as well as committed participation by China to adhere to and enforce global rules, is a bigger interest for the EU.

The EU-China summit will focus mostly on climate and trade. While these are important topics, they must not push other issues off the agenda. They should not overshadow the problems with human rights in China. Journalists are jailed, the death penalty is often carried out and in different parts of the country, minorities are repressed. The importance of the European market for China means that we have a possibility to address the dismal human rights situation in an integrated way. European leaders must also address the provocations and instability in the South China Sea. Although it is unlikely that China will change its position, the EU must make clear that international law is also our guiding principle.

While there may be opportunities for more cooperation, Europe cannot be naive about the fundamental differences that remain. China should let go of ‘China first’ if it wants to be a convincing global player.

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