China needs to approach EU strategically


Authors: Thet Thu Thu Aye & Paul Wang

Over the past 20 years, many people have held that the most important consequential bilateral relationship has been between a rising China and a ruling United States. That remains true today, and it will likely be the case for many years to come, even as the nature of that relationship changes over time. Due to this, some scholars are reluctant to accept the “new cold war” which defines the current strained relations between China and the United States. Yet, the reality is that Washington has adamantly shifted from the previous engagement with Beijing to the current confrontation with it on nearly all the key fronts: geopolitics, trade, high-technologies, finance and even the ideology on domestic governance. Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo openly assailed President Xi as a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper argued that the Communist Party of China wanted Beijing to project power globally via its military and described the Indo-Pacific as the epicenter of a “great power competition with China.” Accordingly, it has led policy experts and China watchers to speak of “a drift toward Cold War,” with all the familiar hallmarks of last century’s Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Historically, the term of the “Cold War” came after the WWII in which the two strongest powers jointly defeated the Germany and later to force Japan to surrender in 1945. Yet, the two greatest powers steadily slide into a confrontation while trying to avoid fight the hot war. This was the reality accepted by the both powers as the Cold War naturally expanded into multiple areas such as starkly opposed ideologies; proxy confrontations that then become proxy wars in other areas; mutually exclusive spheres of influence in which each attempts to freeze out the other; and a global diplomatic, propaganda, and economic offensive to line up allies and cut off the economic oxygen of the other side, as scholar Zachary Karabell argued. Here it is noted that during the old cold war, Europe was the epicenter for the superpowers to compete with each other although they anxiously looked for each allies and also carried on their-directed proxy wars in several regions.

This is not the case of China’s competition with the United States although their relations have deteriorated rapidly over the past years. First, China has not entertained any geopolitical and ideological goals globally. What Beijing has earnestly sought for is its historical claim, e.g. restoring its legitimate rights like other contemporary great powers. Second, China has not historically reached its influence beyond the East Asia, although economically and demographically the overseas Chinese have resided all over the world. Third, China has still had a long way to move forward to a really developed country like Japan and South Korea in terms of its GDP per capita. Actually, it is not China that has tended to pose a threat to the United States; rather it is the United States that has felt it necessary to undermine the increasing rise of China. As a former U.S. high official said many years ago, if an anxious United States and an overconfident China were to slide into increasing political hostility, it is more than likely that both countries would face off in a mutually destructive conflict. Washington would argue that Beijing’s success is based on tyranny and is damaging to the United States’ core interests and values; Beijing, at once, would interpret that U.S. mentality as an attempt to contain and possibly even fragment the Chinese system and China as well. At the same time, China would be likely grasping its successful rejection of Western supremacy, appealing to the developing countries in Asia and Africa as well as Russia which is already hostile to the West due to the geopolitical and historical reasons. Under such a circumstances, European Union would likely seek more independent or balanced course from the United States.

This is the reason behind Beijing’s efforts to boost engagement in the EU amid worsening ties with Washington. Recently, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi started his trip to Europe for promoting global trade and economic businesses, which will be followed by a more senior diplomat Yang Jiechi who is the director of the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign affairs office. Both trips to Europe at the moment have aimed to testify that China would make all efforts to highlight the growing strategic importance of Europe as rivalry between China and the US intensifies. In addition, Yang is expected to help lay the groundwork for President Xi’s upcoming special summit with EU leaders in mid-September. In so doing, Wang-Yang’s trips to Europe means a lot since this double effort (by Wang and Yang) is, to many commentators’ knowledge, quite unprecedented. The timing is clearly to make sure that Europe is a strategic partner for China. As Yang would likely seek to go beyond the heated issue of Chinese 5G technology in talks – an area that has drawn much attention in Europe – and instead focus on partnerships with the countries he visits. Chinese state-backed investors have shown interest in port facilities in the three countries Yang is expected to visit. Greece’s Piraeus port is one of the biggest maritime assets controlled by Chinese, but on 5G, Athens has acknowledged US concerns about Chinese technology and said Huawei did not have a big market in the country. In Spain, China Ocean Shipping Company holds a 51 per cent stake in Noatum Port Holdings, giving it control over the major harbors of Valencia, Bilbao and Barcelona. Equally, the Portuguese plan to build a new container terminal in the port of Sines – the closest European facility to the Panama Canal – has attracted both Chinese and US interest.

In a response to the increasing leverage of China in Europe, U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo also visited Europe recently, warning that China was a threat to the continent’s future, yet the EU remains reluctant to choose between Beijing and Washington. Strategically, China deems that the United States has tried to drive a wedge between China and Europe as it did during the previous cold war. It was widely held that in Europe, Pompeo sought to sabotage China-Europe cooperation with accusations that China was using economic relations for its military expansion. Yet, in terms of EU’s aspiration for a civilian great power, Yang’s visit aims to promote post-pandemic economic cooperation amid a renewed push by China for its non-conventional security issues. It is undeniable that the EU and China remain at loggerheads over an investment treaty, with Brussels accusing Beijing of not making concrete commitments during talks, but the two sides hold the consensus on the free trade and multilateralism.

In light of this, Wang-Yang’s trips to Europe first aim to work with Europe to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and to improve public health. As Beijing reiterates that since China is a country that advocates returning the favor, Chinese side will never forget Europe’s help when it was hit hard by the epidemic, and would never sit idly by and do nothing when Europe faces the same plight. Given that the epidemic in China has currently been effectively controlled, as a member of the global village, China is willing to continue to share its experience in fighting against the epidemic with other countries and provide necessary support to help Europe completely defeat the epidemic at an early date.

For decades, China has deemed a united, stable and prosperous Europe beneficial to itself and the world since it is Beijing’s consistent and open stance and strategic judgment. Accordingly, China would continue supporting Europe’s unity and development. This time, two top diplomats visited EU member states with a view to working out a mutually accepted trade treaty and regulations for investment. On the one hand, China and EU are not only being impacted by the pandemic, but also facing threats and challenges such as unilateralism, protectionism and the resurgence of Cold War mentality. On the other hand, Beijing opines that the two great civilizations and major forces of the world necessarily demonstrated their resolve to strengthen communication and cooperation with each other. To that end, both sides would make efforts to build up long-term strategic consensus including mutual trust, reciprocal understandings and respect to the United Nations and the current international system based on multilateralism. For example, FM Wang Yi stressed that Europe is a significant part of the multi-polar world and China and Europe are always partners not competitors. Also the French president Macron reiterated that the strategic communication between China and France was of great significance. Similarly, German Chancellor Merkel said on Friday that Germany and the European Union (EU) wanted to continue the conversation with China and set an example for multilateralism. As she said, it was necessary to cooperate with China to tackle common challenges like unilateralism. Yet, the EU and China should also hold conversations on topics where they have different views. Accordingly, the two sides vow to continue the conversation and set an example for multilateralism with fair framework conditions.

In sum, China has no resources to avoid the new cold war between China and the United States due to the anti-China mentality of the United States in general and the Trump administration in particular. Yet, China does have potentials to reverse the world to slide into the Cold War dilemma. Except that China needs to further consolidate its overall strategic partnership with Russia, it also needs to work tacitly to approach EU in strategic ways. It is because that EU represents about half of all global industrial production and multiple sorts of high technologies and investment, not to mention of its rich cultural and human legacies and global governance records. With that in mind, the best course for Beijing is to focus on its high-level strategic relations with Russia and development of a comprehensive relations with EU in a mutually beneficial way. For sure, it will take time, money, patience, and strategy. As Zachary Karabell rightly argued, yet in an age of globalization, “Best to let the Cold War be, and learn new tactics to manage a new rivalry for a different century.” Together, China and EU can make the new cold war between China and the United States manageable.

Thet Thu Thu Aye
Thet Thu Thu Aye
PhD candidate in International Relations, School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Jilin University, China.


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