China has become more influential within the European Union since the first 2009 Power Audit of the European Council on Foreign Relations. China’s position of power is, however, no longer just a matter of trade surplus. It is much broader than that – it is a factor of investment, lending, and financial power which all help Beijing to pursue its public diplomacy. Still, what has not changed in nine years is China’s insistence that it is a developing country, even though it has reached the highest ranks in the global economy.
Beijing is picky in its relations with the European Union. Its focus is purely on its direct interests, often ignoring EU norms in its proposals. China has strengthened its relations with member states, while putting special emphasis on Europe’s periphery. Beijing even holds its own summit with Central and Eastern European countries, called 16+1. The Asian dragon saw an opportunity in the euro crisis for a massive takeover in Europe’s south. Interestingly, the terms of doing business with southern European countries are not much different from those of Africa or other developing countries: numerous projects creating competition among recipients, loans at commercial rates, and a strong insistence on identical statements and agreements.
China is already in Europe. Chinese soft power diplomacy relies on repetitive and positive communication and many European entities, including many companies, media groups, and educational institutions, seek to protect their access to the Chinese market. The EU’s learning process of this experience has been difficult. New deals are not in place, not even on trade and the economic issues, which are at the core of European interest. The agreed Agenda 2020 for political and security cooperation with China is fulfilled only to a minimal extent and human rights and humanitarian issues remain to be the most disappointing areas.
The challenge with China can be partly explained by opportunistic behavior of some EU member states. Climate and environment are emerging as promising areas of cooperation but at the 2017 EU-China summit, China held a joint statement on climate hostage to its dispute on market economy status. Europe does not link together different issues but it does seek engagement with Beijing on peacekeeping and support for fragile states.
Europe is therefore embarking on a realistic engagement with China, getting over the mirage of cash from Beijing. China, on its part, is boosting its command economy, turning to full state-led industry including applications of technology and military. For Europeans, this means the danger of acquisition of critical technologies by China, scientific cooperation agreements mirroring China’s 2025 goals and other massive plans.
The European Commission has come up with new trade instruments and expanded the initiative on investment screening by three core member states. Brussels should further seek engagement but also gear up for a China that is currently not very responsive to EU’s requests. This could be done by various means such as replacement of dispersion with strategies, completion of an EU-wide system of investment screening, prevention of new investment from affecting other parts of the mutual relationship and the leveraging of Europe’s like-minded partners in Asia.
‘China at the Gates: A New Power Audit of EU-China Relations’ – Study by François Godement & Abigaël Vasselier – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR)
(The Study can be downloaded here)