Top European Union and Chinese Leaders are convening virtually on Monday for their only bilateral Summit this year. Before coronavirus struck, 2020 had been intended as a historic year to deepen ties, but the pandemic has instead led to a significant spike in tensions.
The New chill in the air has arisen over issues such as China’s handling of the Hong Kong Protests, alleged economic espionage and its military posturing in the Pacific region.
The pandemic has also frayed ties, with EU Foreign Affairs Chief Josep Borrell asserting last month that Beijing tried to pressure Brussels into diluting criticisms of China in an EU report on coronavirus disinformation.
That document from the European External Action Service said that “official and state-backed sources from various governments, including Russia and to a lesser extent China, have continued to widely target conspiracy narratives and disinformation.”
Borrell also called Brussels “a little naive” in its relationship with Beijing, which he claimed is not just an economic partner but a “systemic rival that seeks to promote an alternative model of governance.”
These coronavirus crisis tensions come amid a wider context in which Beijing’s growing focus on Europe has fuelled concerns in Brussels that it is “dividing and ruling” to undermine the continent’s collective interests.
Take the example of President Xi Jinping’s trip last year to Italy, where he signed landmark memorandum of understanding on the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). Brussels has long had reservations about the BRI, not least given its frustrations over Beijing’s perceived slowness to open up its own economy and a wave of Chinese takeovers of European firms in key Industries. Numerous EU States had already signed such BRI agreements, but Italy was the first G7 State to endorse the $1 trillion plan.
That Italian decision was by no means the only development in the last year to have underlined Beijing’s growing influence across Europe. Another example is the annual so-called “17+1” meeting of China and key countries in Eastern and Central Europe, which is aimed at intensifying and expanding cooperation in the fields of investment, transport, finance, science, education, and culture.
“The current tensions in EU-China ties are not the way either Beijing or Brussels intended 2020 to play out”
Key trends are increasingly apparent in China’s external interventions in Europe. For instance, it is becoming clear that Beijing is tailoring its approach around the bespoke needs of individual states or blocs of countries, such as the 17+1. Chinese overtures to Europe are also coming with a clear quid pro quo, as underlined by Italy’s signing up to BRI in exchange for China’s investment.
The current tensions in EU-China ties are not the way either Beijing or Brussels intended 2020 to play out. Indeed, they had intended to deepen their economic and strategic relationship on the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two powers.
In this context of unexpected bilateral angst, Brussels is thinking carefully about its future relationship with Beijing. Were it not for the fact that the transatlantic relationship with the US under Donald Trump also looks so fragile, it is quite possible that EU leaders would be remonstrating with China with much more gusto.
As things stand, however, there is too much uncertainty in US-European ties for that to happen. EU leaders will, therefore, default to pragmatism on Monday and the mood music between Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel will be upbeat.
The key ambition will be to stress areas of common interest and cooperation, in what Borrell has called a “big, positive agenda,” including the importance of an open, multilateral trading system and efforts to tackle climate change. The two sides have long had a fruitful dialogue on global warming and had hoped to sign a bilateral deal this year.
They are cooperating on the development of a cost-effective low-carbon economy, which is especially important in light of the Trump team’s abdication of this agenda. Collectively, the EU and China account for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and their 2015 bilateral climate change declaration was one of the key drivers of the Paris deal.
The reason why EU-China discussions on climate change are so cooperative is that, fundamentally, both share a vision of a prosperous, energy-secure future in a stable climate and recognise the need for bilateral collaboration to realise this agenda. Both powers recognise that there is a massive “win-win” opportunity on the horizon from accelerating the transition to a low-carbon future.
Taken together, despite lingering tensions over issues such as coronavirus and the BRI, both the EU and China still have much to gain from their partnership, especially at a time of continued policy uncertainty from the US under Trump. However, the window of opportunity to collaborate may not remain open indefinitely.