The perceived economic gains of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI), which the 27-nation European Union recently struck with the People’s Republic of China, come at the cost of disregarding human rights, which the Western bloc is known for, amid clear and irreconcilable systemic differences.
The closing days of 2020 saw the European Union and China striking a deal known as the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI), thereby concluding seven long years of negotiations, as per the year-end deadline. China is also the EU’s biggest trading partner after the United States, but a strategic and systemic rival too.
The European Commission, Brussels-based executive arm of the EU, primarily led the negotiations on behalf of the bloc. Germany, being the holder the EU Council Presidency and led by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s continued push, combined with Beijing’s last-minute concessions, proved instrumental in expediting the process of finalising the CAI before the end of 2020.
However, the deal will still have to wait for a formal ratification by both sides and an approval by the Strasbourg-based EU Parliament, a tougher task, before finally setting it on course to be effective in a couple of years’ time, if not by early 2022.
Better rules, level-playing field for European businesses
The EU, by this deal, aims to widen the access for European companies to lucrative Chinese markets, with billion-plus consumers, on a wide range of sectors, particularly in services such as healthcare, finance, cloud-computing and air travel, among others, that has always been restrictive to foreign players in the past.
The deal could bring in a level playing field in the conduct of European businesses in China wherein Chinese state-owned enterprises will no longer be given preferential treatment through subsidies, thereby promoting fair competition and ensuring transparency in technology transfers. Newer possibilities for the expansion European businesses in China will be opened.
The CAI also promise better rules, investment protection, and an investment dispute settlement mechanism within two years of signing, which will replace all the separate bilateral investment treaties currently signed between China and EU member states. The EU maintains that the main purpose of this new deal is to address the economic imbalance in its relations with China.
However, the most striking aspect of the CAI is that, for the first time, China commits to follow accepted standards on climate and labour aspects, even though in a vague form. And for the EU, the timing of this deal with China is significant as a way of signalling its reengagement with the world in the aftermath of a post-Brexit scenario.
At the same time, the CAI reaffirmed reciprocal access for Chinese companies into European markets, which they always had. So, the deal matters to Europe, more than it matters to China. So, the real question is the extent of compromises which European negotiators had to make to strike the deal with the Asian superpower.
The issue of forced labour in China
Many EU member countries and the US had been apprehensive about the human rights situation in the northern Xinjiang province of China where there have been evidences and investigations on the use of forced labour from the media and elsewhere, which has not been duly factored in while concluding the investment deal.
It has been alleged that in the past several years, the Chinese government has forced over a million Uighur minorities in Xinjiang to perform seasonal labour against their will and are often underpaid. But, the Chinese government has repeatedly denied such allegations.
Many European lawmakers believe that China is not interested in fully complying with international agreements after signing it and is not a responsible and trustable partner. The presence of mass detention camps in this province, as verified by satellite imagery and other documents, is also a human rights concern which the EU was not supposed to ignore, considering its historical commitments to human rights.
US concerns and strategic rivalry
The incoming Biden administration has also raised concerns about the CAI, stating that it would “welcome early consultations” with its European partners on shared concerns surrounding China’s unfair economic practices, hinting at the issue of forced labour and the deal’s lacking on the question of enforcement of human rights.
Being a security and strategic partner of the US and part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), any such deal which EU and its member countries sign with its strategic rival, China, could effectively undermine American-led efforts to counter the strategic and geopolitical threat posed by Beijing’s aggressive and expansionist policies around the world.
It also flies in the face of an incoming Biden administration which is openly committed to mend relations with allies in Europe that had been worsened under Donald Trump. Many experts in the US have felt the EU should’ve waited for a few more weeks until the Biden administration takes charge to form a co-ordinated approach, as it related to their common systemic and strategic rival, China.
Moreover, the deal comes at a time when individual EU members such as Germany and the Netherlands have recently released their own outlook on the Indo-Pacific strategy, which is perceivably aimed at containing China’s rise and to ensure balance of power in the region. Meanwhile, France’s outlook is in existence for two years now.
Way ahead for implementation
The deal has now been reached at the technical level, paving way for a final ratification. But, getting the deal through the European Parliament, which attaches far more significance to human rights concerns than the Commission and the Council, is going to be a tough task, as many European legislators are increasingly sceptical of Chinese intentions and commitments to any deal.
The coming months are going to be crucial with regard to how the European legislators will debate and take forward the deal to the next level.