22.06.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

China-EU Relations during SARS COV-2 Pandemic


Several noteworthy events linked to the China-EU ties have taken place recently. At first glance, they appeared to be routine in nature because during the past decade these events have been held on an annual basis. They are particularly relevant nowadays due mainly to the current geopolitical context.

The events the author is referring to include the international conference “EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation”, held in Brussels on May 13, that brought together a wide range of academics, practitioners and policymakers. Points from a 16-page document with the same name as the symposium were discussed during the event. On June 9, the 10th China-EU High Level Strategic Dialogue (via a virtual meeting) between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell took place. On June 11, PRC Premier Li Keqiang and Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel had a video talk.

The aforementioned events are of interest in large part due to the fact that they clearly involved a silent third party, i.e. the (for now) leading world power. The relations between the United States and each side of the scheduled China-EU dialogue are problematic. Hence, naturally, Washington is not at all keen to see a resolution of issues plaguing PRC’s relationship with the European Union, and especially, any significant developments in the process the two parties refer to as “cooperation”.

In the eyes of US leadership, it would seem that China has become USA’s main geopolitical rival, the title held by the USSR during the Cold War. As for the European Union, Washington is aiming to preserve any remnants of trans-Atlantic solidarity and to then come together in the face of the new powerful opponent. It is equally important for the United States to focus its attention on the successor state of the Soviet Union, i.e. Russia, which is increasingly more often being mentioned (in negative contexts) together with the PRC.

Among radical differences between the current geopolitical landscape and the one during the Cold War, the fact that Japan and Germany, which only 30 years ago were in a somewhat subordinate position in relation to the United States, are returning to the Global Chess Game as its key participants stands out. Their leading roles in regional alliances, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the European Union, are indicative of the rise in their global standing.

Angela Merkel’s refusal to take part in the scheduled G7 Summit, and her disapproval of USA’s previously imposed and future sanctions that could prevent the completion of Nord Stream 2 also demonstrate Germany’s increasing clout on the global political arena.

Still, fairly frequent discussions about the trans-Atlantic ties becoming completely irrelevant seem premature unless, of course, the current political upheavals in the United States turn into a full-blown crisis. In other words, while assessing the significance of the aforementioned Sino-EU events, it is important to take into account the ongoing fundamental changes happening within the USA-China-EU “triangle”.

The contradictory mixture of cooperation and rivalry has had its effect on the recent bilateral dialogues. China’s assessments of the overall state of the relationship with Europe and of outcomes of the aforementioned events are largely positive in nature. This is normal considering the increasingly tense relations between Beijing and Washington. In fact, China has been sending Brussels unambiguous messages expressing hope that the EU “will not blindly follow US moves to oppose China”.

The European Union’s actions in relation to the PRC have an unmistakable element of competition to them, which up to now was almost entirely centered on the economic sector. Europe is concerned about takeovers of EU-based companies considered to be strategically important as a result of China’s buying sprees (a term coined by European analysts) in leading European nations, first and foremost Germany. In fact, over the last two to three years, Germany has become the main proponent of tightening rules to protect EU firms from takeovers by investors from non-European Union countries.

A press release, issued by the European Commission on June 10 on potential steps to be taken to fight disinformation spread about the SARS COV-2 pandemic by foreign actors, among others, has added a substantial political element to the problems China-EU ties are facing.

In fact, Deutsche Welle described the statement as “unusually blunt” because almost for the first time since the Coronavirus outbreak started, the executive branch of the EU has accused Russia and China of “waging targeted” COVID-19 disinformation campaigns not only in the EU but “its neighborhood, and globally”.

It would appear that one of the contributors to the aforementioned press release was in fact Josep Borrell, who the head of PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs talked with a day earlier about developing closer ties between the EU and China “on a wide range of issues”.

Beijing reacted with concern to the ratification of the European Union Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) and the EU-Vietnam Investment Protection Agreement (EVIPA), signed a year earlier, by the National Assembly of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a country that the PRC has a strained relationship with. It is also noteworthy that little visible headway has been made in negotiations, spanning many years, between China and the EU on analogous agreements.

During the talks held on June 11 with PRC Premier Li Keqiang, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel once again (as, for instance, in autumn of last year during her visit to China) “highlighted the need for further steps on market access … and equal treatment of foreign companies”.

If documents issued by the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the central government of the PRC in recent years are anything to go by, the previously mentioned goals are also key priorities for China. In this context, a telephone conversation (which took place the day before Li Keqiang’s and Angela Merkel’s video meeting) between Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang and one of the leaders of Volkswagen Group, Stephan Wöllenstein, is worthy of note. During the discussion, the Chinese official informed his counterpart about the progress achieved in the countries’ joint efforts to fight the Coronavirus pandemic, and also “affirmed Volkswagen Group’s further expansion of investment in China”.

By and large, during the aforementioned events, the PRC leadership made it clear that they had moved much closer to concluding agreements similar to those the European Union had already signed with a number of other Asian nations, such as Vietnam (as mentioned earlier) and Japan. However, the Chancellor of Germany, widely regarded as the leader of the EU, seems to think that the PRC still has some work to do.

It is also worth pointing out that the first EU-China summit, which was initially scheduled to be held in Leipzig at the beginning of September and was to be attended by the PRC President and the leaders of all 27 member states of the EU, has been postponed indefinitely. The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic was used as the official reason for the decision.

Incidentally, Xi Jinping’s visit to Japan was also put off for an indefinite period of time on account of COVID-19. And in fact, the aforementioned event was only recently the focus of attention of both these Asian nations.

It is starting to appear that the SARS COV-2 pandemic struck at just the right time for all the leading world players. COVID-19 has allowed them to delay making even somewhat decisive moves and instead take stock of the current state of affairs on the global chess board.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.



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