Xi’s European tour and China-EU relations

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

EU and Chinese flags. [Shutterstock]

Ahead of the first ever visit to the EU headquarters by a Chinese head of state, Dr. Frauke Austermann and doctoral researcher Anastas Vangeli look at the challenges and prospects of Sino-European relations in the light of the most pressing issues at hand, including the differences of approach of the Ukrainian question.

Anastas Vangeli is a Doctoral Researcher at the Graduate School for Social Research, Polish Academy of Science, Warsaw. Dr. Frauke Austermann is Assistant Professor in International Affairs and Program Director at the ESSCA School of Management, Shanghai. They are co-editors, alongside Wang Xiaoguang, of the volume China and Europe in 21st Century Global Politics: Partnership, Competition or Co-Evolution (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013).

Xi Jinping’s European tour 2014 happens at a time when the so-called honeymoon period between China and the EU is long over. While reaching important milestones, such as becoming the largest trading partners in the world, the Sino-European relationship has also had its own bottlenecks and dead ends in the past ten years. Moreover, China and the EU face important domestic challenges. Following the sovereign debt crisis, the EU has come out more vulnerable than ever before, with the crisis having spilled over to the political sphere. China on the other hand, is struggling with a major restructuring of its society as a whole, and a slowdown of its economic development after decades of exponential growth rates.

In this sense, while being preoccupied with their domestic imperatives, China and the EU have tried to cooperate where possible, and to minimize conflict: in the words of Henry Kissinger, they have developed a relationship of “co-evolution.” Such constellation throws doubts on the Strategic Partnership launched in 2003.

Yet, China and Europe are still very high on each others’ foreign policy agenda, and they have considerably institutionalized their cooperation. Crucial in this respect is the comprehensive EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation, launched at the end of 2013. The Agenda has four pillars: I) Peace and Security; II) Economic Prosperity; III) Sustainable Development; and IV) People-to-People Exchanges. The question for the time to come is whether this ambitious agenda is just a paper tiger or if it will genuinely help advance their cooperation?

Regarding the first pillar, peace and security, the EU and China have both been proponents of the ideas of achieving peace through multilateralism, and have actively worked towards that end. However, they have often expressed diverging, if not conflicting interpretations of the core norms of statehood, sovereignty and borders, which has divided them on a number of security and global issues. Moreover, the EU has experienced bifurcation of its policy towards Beijing due to rise of bilateral relations between China and individual member states.

In order to be able to pursue true Strategic Partnership on security issues, China’s relations with Europe need to become more European and less bilateral. In the past, China has complained about the lack of a single voice from Europe which Beijing however also used to its advantage. In this context, it is remarkable that Xi Jinping’s European tour includes the first official visit by a Chinese President to the European institutions in Brussels. Despite the Chinese vision of a multipolar world in which the EU is one of the poles, so far, China has treated the EU first and foremost as an economic. Hence, relations have been primarily managed by the Chinese Premiers. As a result, the agenda was usually dominated by trade and development matters, dedicating only marginal attention to strategic issues. Having Xi in Brussels therefore means that the talks will include more high politics than usual.

In this sense, the Strategic Partnership on peace and security is being put to the test, the main reason being the brewing situation in Ukraine.  So far, the two sides demonstrated different approaches on the issue: while the EU has been pro-active in condemning Russian actions, China has cautiously placed itself on the sidelines avoiding direct involvement. Given the importance of the issue for Europeans, it is likely that they will lobby a more resolute stance by China.

The second pillar of the Strategic Agenda2020, economic prosperity, may seem to be a relatively easy one. After all, economic exchanges and mutual investment has always been the basis of EU-China relations. Nonetheless, it should not be forgotten that 2013 was a year of friction in the area of trade, with major disputes over solar panels, solar panel components, mobile technology, as well as wine. However, China and the EU managed to consolidate their trade relations before the situation escalated. Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit to Brussels may have pushed the very recent moves to mutually drop anti-dumping charges or investigations. Hence, Xi’s travel to the European capital is likely to restore trust and to further advance the relative peace in the trade relations.

Moreover, Xi’s visit is expected to inspire progress in related areas, such as the negotiation of a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT). The BIT is important for Brussels as it will help consolidate its institutional framework of overseeing Chinese investment in the EU and facilitate access of European investments to the Chinese market. At the same time it will be first stand-alone investment agreement negotiated by the Union based on the competences gained under the Lisbon Treaty. China also regards the BIT as a prequel to a Free Trade Agreement with the Union.

Aside from talking business, there is a lot of doing business on Xi’s agenda: the President is travelling with an entourage of 200 businesspeople, and is expected to broker significant deals with European companies.

Promising are the developments regarding the third pillar of the Strategic Agenda 2020, that is cooperation in sustainable development. Sustainable urban development is among the core areas of cooperation between China and Europe, as the two sides established official Partnership on Urbanization in 2012. China seeks to learn from the EU on sustainable urbanization; the EU considers itself a stakeholder in China’s sustainable development and is therefore willing to help China build capacities for the urbanization challenges ahead. The momentum for advancing cooperation in sustainable urbanization is further stimulated by the fact that Xi’s visit occurs shortly after the unveiling of the Urbanization Plan 2014-2020, a project that is crucial for the restructuring of the Chinese economy and society as a whole and a backbone to the CPC’s new economic strategy.

Last but not the least the comprehensive Strategic Partnership has made people-to-people exchange and cultural diplomacy a priority. Getting in particular young Europeans and Chinese to know each other better, and to experience the culture of the “other” has been enshrined as one of the core goals of EU-China relations. Eventually, this will contribute to overcoming the divides in terms of the mutual perception and the different norms and values that have burdened the current generations. Of special importance in this respect will be Xi’s talk at the College of Europe in Bruges, a postgraduate university institute founded by the European founding fathers, where future EU leaders are trained.

In conclusion, China and the EU are yet to move beyond the phase of “co-evolution,” and to foster a true Strategic Partnership of equals. However, taking into account the points argued above, Xi’s visit should bring Brussels and Beijing closer towards fulfilling this goal, and in particular the EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda.

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