On 9 April, the scheduled (21st) EU-China Summit took place in Brussels. We would like to remind our readers, that this meeting was preceded by the visit to Europe by China’s President Xi Jinping, who most likely agreed on the programme for the upcoming summit during his negotiations with the leaders of Germany, France, Italy and the EU.
PRC’s delegation to Brussels was headed by Premier Li Keqiang, and that of the EU by the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, respectively.
One’s attention is first drawn to the fact that the period between the current summit and the one preceding it, which took place in Beijing in July 2018, is relatively short. We would also like to reiterate that although, from the onset, the aforementioned meetings were meant to be staged on a yearly basis, the year 2019 has just begun, so why the need to rush?
After all, the 20th anniversary EU-China Summit took place last year, and it ended with the signing of a comprehensive Joint Statement. The document includes all the significant achievements reached in the course of bilateral ties since they were established in 1975. It also highlighted the fact that the two sides shared similar views on pressing global issues and agreed on actions to resolve them. Examples of these challenges include North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, the situation in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and problems associated with climate change.
The statement “flung” at their US counterparts by the EU-Chinese side said that the two parties were “strongly committed to fostering an open world economy, improving trade and investment liberalization and facilitation, resisting protectionism and unilateralism…”.
In all likelihood, this phrase contains the answer to the aforementioned question, as these words refer to the source of Beijing’s and Brussels’ concerns, i.e. the radically new stance taken by the leading world power (the United States) on the global stage. China as well as the EU aim to oppose progression of all the trends associated with policies of Donald Trump’s administration.
Incidentally, in the months that followed July 2018, the U.S. relationships with the PRC and the EU only worsened (and not only from an economic perspective, which is important to highlight). Despite the optimism portrayed from time to time towards the future of the negotiation “saga” on (at least) preventing the start of the China–United States trade war, no concrete actions have so far been taken, only words exchanged. And even if it ends with the signing of some compromise document, it is highly unlikely that this occasion will be accompanied by equally sincere smiles from all the parties.
As for the US-EU relations, they have not warranted even somewhat positive language thus far.
In other words, both Beijing and Brussels chose not to delay their talks to compare notes, and decided it was actually necessary to try and resolve the fairly serious issues in their bilateral ties, discussed on more than one occasion in the New Eastern Outlook.
Last year’s Joint Statement clearly refers to these challenges. As, for example, in the following sentence: “The EU took note of China’s recent commitments to improving market access and the investment environment, strengthening intellectual property rights and expanding imports, and looks forward to their full implementation as well as further measures”.
We would like to highlight two points regarding this excerpt. Firstly, this previously mentioned period, marked by eager expectations, is actually measured in years, and it serves, for instance, as an excuse for refusing to grant China the status of a market economy and for erecting restrictive barriers to Chinese investments in the European economy. Secondly, the USA has expressed similar reservations towards the PRC, for instance, during the previously mentioned bilateral negotiations.
Hence, it is hardly appropriate to talk about China and the EU striving towards the creation of an anti-American front (if only) in the sphere of economics. At least Brussels has not displayed any visible signs of such an inclination. In all likelihood, the EU leadership is concerned about complex internal problems, and is, therefore, trying to find some form of middle-ground in relation to both world powers. It is probably more apt to discuss China’s and EU’s intentions to compare notes, and to try and find a compromise between their initial bargaining positions, which are hard to reconcile.
The Joint Statement signed in Brussels is for the most part similar to last year’s document. Still there are some noteworthy differences in, first and foremost, clause 4, which says: “The two sides commit to achieve in the course of 2019 the decisive progress required, notably with regard to the liberalization commitments, for the conclusion of an ambitious China-EU Comprehensive Investment Agreement in 2020”.
To this end, both sides agreed to establish a special “political mechanism to continuously monitor the progress in the negotiations and to report to leaders by the end of the year on the progress made”.
Of equal importance are the statements about “forging synergies” between the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative and “the EU strategy on Connecting Europe and Asia as well as the EU Trans-European Transport Networks”.
Clause 11 on cyber technologies is also worthy of note, especially the words about welcoming “progress and further exchanges” in technologies used in 5G mobile networks. We would like to highlight at this point that the EU has refused to back U.S. attempts to exclude Huawei from 5G networks world-wide (the company is China’s leader in this sphere).
It is also noteworthy that the 2019 Joint Statement does not include any mention of the negotiations, which have spanned a number of years, on signing the bilateral Free Trade Agreement. We would also like to remind our readers that such a document was signed between the EU and Japan in 2018.
From Brussels Li Keqiang headed to the Croatian resort city of Dubrovnik, where the 8th meeting between Prime Ministers from 16 Eastern and Central European nations and their PRC counterpart was scheduled to be held from 11 to 12 April (the so-called 16+1 forum). The New Eastern Outlook has, on more than one occasion, discussed particular features of this “forum” and the place it occupies in China’s overall policy towards Europe.
Since “16+1” was established in 2012, it has been the source of contradictory comments from PRC and EU officials, as well as experts. Beijing’s stepped-up efforts in the eastern part of the continent (stretching from the Balkans in the south to the Baltic states in the North) are being observed by Brussels with wariness.
This feeling is reflected in the latest document (EU-China – A strategic outlook, ) dedicated to the relations between the EU and PRC, which was published by the European Commission on 12 March.
Beijing, on the other hand, emphasizes, in every possible way, its desire to see a unified EU, and the importance of compatibility between infrastructure projects, undertaken in Eastern and Central Europe, and OBOR (a political and economic initiative) and the previously mentioned European plans to expand communication and transportation networks with Asia. PRC’s newspaper Global Times has published statements expressing such views. For instance, it described the participation of Chinese and Croatian Prime Ministers in a ceremony to “mark the completion of the first phase of construction” of a bridge, which will connect the Peljesac Peninsula in the Adriatic Sea with the continental part of Croatia. The total cost of the project is estimated to be half a billion U.S. dollars, 85% of it will be financed by the EU. Last year, because a company from the PRC, China Road and Bridge Corporation, won the tender to build the bridge, its European rival accused it of “charging a price lower than the value of the project”
The previously mentioned ceremony in Peljesac took place before the “forum”, whose format changed to “17+1” since, on its first day, Greece was welcomed as a full member. During his speech at the opening, Li Keqiang highlighted China’s intention to “respect European standards”. Having reaffirmed the nation’s path to greater “openness”, he stated that European “companies that operate in China” would be treated fairly (according to principles of two-way reciprocity).
Overall, the latest visits to Europe by the PRC leader and its Premier and their outcomes, confirm the recent statements, made by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, about Europe’s growing importance in Beijing’s foreign policy.
Still, the way the EU-China relations develop will be influenced by global trends on the world’s political stage.
The opposite, is also equally true, i.e. that the process of transformation of the global political landscape cannot but be affected by the relationship between such players, belonging to the highest political league, as the PRC and the EU.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”