The visit by the President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Xi Jinping, to Europe in March was a significant event in world politics for the first half of 2019. The tour began only a week after a routine, but invariably important internal political event, called the Two Sessions, came to an end.
During this gathering, scheduled annual plenary sessions of the China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) and of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (PCC) take place.
As was the case in recent years, the last Two Sessions events focused on resolving the fundamental problem facing modern China, i.e. its need to reconcile two opposing trends. The first stems from the increasing control the communist party and the state exercise over all the aspects of life inside the country, the second trend, yet again confirmed by China’s leader, is the course the nation has taken towards greater “openness” (mainly in the economic sphere) to cooperation with the rest of the world.
We would like to highlight that, objectively speaking, both trends are equally real, hence neither of them can be completely ignored. In the current environment with its closely interwoven internal and external challenges the Chinese society is facing, the tightening of the screws on the “lid” of the cauldron in which this community is “stewing” is an inevitable by-product.
At the same time the fact that China is becoming a world power has predetermined its course of greater opening-up towards the global community. The most recent manifestation of this trend was the government-sponsored annual China Development Forum (CDF). During his speech at this event, Vice Premier Han Zheng said, among other things, that “greater opening-up is a must for the economy’s future high-quality development”.
For now, this problem (we reiterate, fundamental in nature) has no obvious solution in sight, which would satisfy both the people and the rulers of the PRC. We would simply like to emphasize that the latter is searching for a solution, which is what any responsible government of a nation, vying to become a global leader, should be doing.
The visit of China’s leader to Europe ought to be viewed in the context of this search. This was Xi Jinping’s fifth official trip since he became the President of the PRC, and the first foreign visit this year. And China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, chose to highlight just this during his speeches on the sidelines of the Two Sessions, where he talked about “the importance of Europe as the focal point of China’s foreign policy“.
The significance of this region stems from factors that are economic as well political in nature. In the current environment of an increasingly rapid transformation of our world order, Europe is viewed by Beijing as not only “one the most important destinations for its future Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI, a key national initiative), but also as a potential political partner. This latter view has taken on a new significance as China’s world-wide confrontation against Washington intensifies, while the relations between the United States and Europe are becoming increasingly more strained.
It seems as if favorable conditions are emerging for closer mutual relations between China and Europe. However, despite active bilateral communications at various levels and in different formats over recent years (Brussels – Beijing, and capitals of various leading European nations – Beijing again), a clearly discernible desire for a closer relationship is observed only from the Chinese side for now.
In addition, in 2017, on request from Germany’s Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, Brigitte Zypries, the European Union (EU) imposed protective barriers to incoming Chinese investments (which have risen substantially shortly before then) in European companies. First and foremost, these investments are in enterprises that specialize in development and production of high tech products. In Germany fears, arising from a potential loss of control over these companies and of competitive advantages of its products on the world market, began to emerge.
On 21 March of this year, i.e. right before Xi Jinping’s visit to Europe, global media outlets reported that in preparation for the upcoming EU – China summit, scheduled for April 9, European leaders discussed measures to strengthen the previously mentioned shield against increasing Chinese influence in the Europe sub-continent, in Brussels. This time around, the justification for these measures happened to be the lack of so-called reciprocal openness of the Chinese market to incoming European goods and investments.
Hence, the PRC leader was on his way to Europe at a time when “key Europeans”, embodied by the bureaucrats in Brussels, were, almost openly, showing their animosity towards the nation that he heads. This does not seem to disconcert the Chinese leaders in any way, as they are intent on continuing with their policy of overcoming these “barriers”, which are being imposed by a stubbornly disagreeable, but, at the same time, potentially very important partner. The situation is beginning to resemble a classic plot from an opera “You don’t love me, but regardless I do love you.”
And the perseverance, demonstrated by the new contender for the role of world leader, has begun to bear fruit, as the ranks of these “barrier builders” are, seemingly, far from uniform. They include nations such as Italy, which occupies second place after Great Britain in the non-conformist category. It is Rome under its new leadership that has, in every way possible, displayed mutual affection towards Beijing, and it is Italy that became the first nation the Chinese leader visited during his European tour.
During his meetings with the President and the Prime Minister of Italy, emblematic words about ancient cultures of both these nations, which were connected by the Silk Road as far back as 2,000 years ago, were spoken. These words served as a prelude to the signing of the most important of several, previously approved bilateral documents, or more specifically, of the “memorandum of understanding (MoU) to jointly advance the construction of the Belt and Road”.
Reports have specifically highlighted the fact that Italy became the first nation among the G-7 countries to express its readiness to take part in the implementation of the BRI, and, among other things, to merge this route with the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T).
Still it is important to divulge that the MoU does not impose any obligations on either side, and instead simply expresses their intention to “try” and reach certain goals. In other words, an opportunity remains to later say something along the following lines “We made an effort but it did not work out,” or even openly blame the partner for the failure, which is often the case with documents of this nature.
From Italy, PRC’s leader traveled to France, where the atmosphere surrounding his visit was noticeably different from that during the previous trip. This difference was clearly highlighted by Xi Jinping’s article, published ahead of his arrival in Paris, and by a speech given by France’s President Emmanuel Macron at the press conference, held a day earlier after the previously mentioned EU summit in Brussels.
The difference in tone of the political statements, made by the leaders of both nations, is readily discernible. Xi Jinping’s article is devoted, in its entirety, to the successes achieved in bilateral ties and to China’s willingness to develop this relationship further, including within the framework of the BRI. On the other hand, Emmanuel Macron essentially talked about the key provisions of the communication “EU-China – A strategic outlook”, published by the European Commission on 12 March, that sets out 10 concrete actions.
As is the case of all the other EU documents on its relations with the PRC, publicized in recent years, the main aim of the previously mentioned communication is to limit Chinese finances and businesses entering the European market in size and scale. In addition, the document describes, with weariness, Beijing’s efforts to develop closer relations with a number of Eastern European nations, on the whole (in the 16+1 format), and, in particular, with the Balkan nations.
Beijing views the Balkan Peninsula as the starting point in Southern Europe for its implementation of the BRI. In the north, the equivalent region may turn out to be Norwegian ports where Chinese goods will, hopefully, be shipped via the Northern Sea Route.
Still, the visits to France and then to Monaco (the final destination of the Chinese leader’s European tour) were staged with all the outer trappings befitting events of this nature.
On the last day of his European tour, PRC’s leader Xi Jinping metwith President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, and France’s President Emmanuel Macron. Evidently, this was the final opportunity to explore each other’s negotiating positions before the upcoming EU – China summit, whose outcomes will require a separate discussion.
Finally, there are two articles with commentaries on Chinese leader’s European tour that are noteworthy. They were published by the Global Times newspaper under the striking headings “Cooperating with China is key to European integration” and “Catering to US interests will hurt EU“.
The message aimed at the EU in these articles is unmistakeable. Nonetheless, it seems as if Europeans have begun to perceive the United States and China equally warily, and have started their search for a “middle ground”.
Still, it will only be worthwhile to discuss EU’s future geopolitical strategy once the outlook for the organization’s own future is more positive. And for now, on the contrary, it remains uncertain.
Vladimir Terehov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.