CUI Hongjian 崔洪建, Director, Department for European Studies, China Institute of International Studies
Plamen TONCHEV, Head of Asia Unit, Institute of International Economic Relations; European China Policy Fellow, Merics
2020 has been widely accredited as the turning point for the international order; in every continent and within every country it has presented change and challenge that have spurred tectonic shifts incomparable to anything before in our lifetimes. The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the US presidential election are two of many major events that will affect global relations over the coming years. What will be the implications of these events for Sino-European relations? This is the major issue that professor Cui Hongjian – Director of the Department for European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing – and professor Plamen Tonchev – Head of Asia Unit at the Athens-based Institute of International Economic Relations and European China Policy fellow at Merics – attempted to address in their TIC discussion on December 3rd, 2020.
China’s image in Europe has deteriorated over the past year. Indeed, even though a major theme in Sino-European relations has recently consisted in mutual support for containing Covid-19, a “battle of narratives” has arisen – to quote Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. According to this rationale, China has been pursuing a so-called “mask diplomacy”, exploiting knowledge-sharing against Covid-19 and shipping medical equipment all over the world for its own political and diplomatic purposes.
According to Cui, Sino-European economic cooperation will certainly undergo major changes. In his view, trends towards regional economic partnerships will prevail both for China – with ASEAN neighbors – and for Europe. This proposes to configure a long-term trend, since trade and industrial sectors have witnessed a dislocation of supply chains either at home or towards closed countries. Nonetheless, professor Cui observes that China possesses a clear conception to develop strong relations with the EU, and being this latter regarded as a strategic partner – rather than a merely economic one – supports this assumption. On the other side, the EU defines its relations with Beijing as characterized by both cooperation and competition.
The new American administration is expected to be more consistent and predictable than under Donald Trump’s presidency. It is feasible for the common ground between the U.S. and EU to expand under Biden administration, and this is likely to consequently affect EU-China relations.
During the next few years, Cui foresees a slight shift in American foreign policy towards China, which will give rise to political struggles and ideological confrontations. Concerning economic and global affairs, he expects enhanced cooperation and de-escalation of economic competition. In his view, the risk of decoupling for China-U.S. economic relations will keep diminishing, providing the EU with wider space for stable economic cooperation with China. With regard to the geopolitical and security challenges, Asia and the Pacific region surrounding China represent a huge opportunity for the EU, unless the latter performs in a constructive way, outside of a “US-led alliance”, he asserted.
According to Tonchev, America’s “China policy” is likely to become more sophisticated and multidimensional, based on containment and selective decoupling, and with strong elements of cooperation. He expects a broadening of western alliances amid the US-China stand-off, given that Biden is considered to be a long-standing supporter of transatlantic relations. As a result, we can assume that his administration is likely to restore transatlantic relations, bring the country back to the Paris Agreement, reaffirm Washington’s support for NATO, resolve trade disputes with the EU, and re-engage America into international organizations. Nonetheless, this remains an area that will impact EU-China relations, as Beijing will continue to be viewed by the US as a “threat to the current international order” inside these bodies, as declared by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
Analyzing EU-China relations, Tonchev has identified four key areas likely to be affected by Biden’s election. Regarding trade and investments, the EU and China will remain economic partners, though this area will not be free of disputes and controversies. It will be useful to watch the progress on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI) or the Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT, as Beijing prefers to refer to it). According to the speaker, we will witness both diversification and assertiveness from the EU in its negotiations with China.
With regard to climate change, he observes that notwithstanding China’s recently announced commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, the EU remains cautious for two main reasons. First, this timeline does not seem to demonstrate a sense of urgency about combating climate change, and an acceleration towards China’s carbon-neutrality would be desirable. Secondly, Chinese authorities are expected to address pollution both domestically and along BRI routes abroad. Climate change is where we foresee the most positive prospects in EU-China relations, Tonchev argues. Since the U.S. is expected to return to the negotiating table, there will be plenty of room for strategic cooperation on a global scale, including with China.
Geopolitics remains an area of confrontation between China and the West, though the EU does not support the idea of a new Cold War and acknowledges that China has a role to play in mitigating certain regional conflicts. However, in terms of governance and core political values, the EU will always be closer to the U.S. than to China and this domain is likely to be characterized by growing tensions.
Report written by David Morabito and edited by Natasha Lock.