Leaders of China, Germany and the European Union held a meeting on Monday to discuss future priorities for China-EU relations. Despite some differences, China and the EU have been taking a proactive and pragmatic approach to advance their cooperation. An investment deal between China and the EU is expected to be inked by the end of this year, while the two sides announced the official signing of the China-EU agreement on geographical indications on Monday.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been frequent high-level interactions between China and the EU, including the 22nd China-EU leaders’ meeting in June. The two sides have carried out dialogues on trade, climate change and digital issues. However, at a time when the governments and people of China and Europe are exchanging ideas of mutual support, many criticisms about China have been aroused within Europe. The war of words magnified by some European media outlets entails the virus narrative, the so-called mask diplomacy and “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. The intensification of conflicts between China and the EU in terms of values may even affect the existing cooperation in the fields of economics, trade and multilateralism.
China-EU relations are at an important juncture with two key variables: the “structural” factor and the “actor” factor. There are major changes in “structural” factors, which are profound and have not been seen in a century. The impact of the pandemic on the international economic order has accelerated power struggles between the East and the West, especially between emerging economies and developed Western states. Besides, major changes can also be observed through the comprehensive strategic games between China and the US, as well as the coexistence and competition between unilateralism and multilateralism, nationalism and cosmopolitanism.
The “actor” factor is reflected in changes of governing philosophy, the po-wer game among countries and political parties, as well as trends of fragmentation and polarization in public opinions, which have further limited European countries from acting. In fact, Europe is faced with a more complicated and difficult political environment. It is embedded in the game of great powers and geopolitical competition. It is also deeply trapped by the competence between EU institutions, the widening gap between inner Europe and peripheral Europe, and the weakening of member sta-tes’ trust in the Brussels, a-mong other factors. Gene-rally speaking, the factors that influence China-EU ti-es are many in number and fraught with uncertainties.
It is worth noting that since Germany assumed the rotating presidency of the EU, Berlin has shifted the bloc’s policy priorities. Berlin focuses more on solidarity, European sovereignty, efforts to curb the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and stronger European integration. With regard to China, Berlin hopes that European countries can reconcile with each other based on equal and profitable economic relations while defending the unity of the bloc. The basic tone of Berlin is to seek stability and make the bloc speak with a same voice to China.
Despite divergences between China and the EU, some in Europe hope to strengthen engagement with China and keep the door open for cooperation and dialogue instead of decoupling. Meanwhile, others keep an eye on systemic competitions between China and the bloc while ignoring their comprehensive strategic partnership. Frankly, we do not deny that contradictions between China and the EU have flared up in the past two years. Both sides are experiencing major misperceptions on many levels. Most European countries hope to maneuver in the competition between the two sides to enhance Europe’s influence and strategic autonomy. But only with sustainable transition will Europe become stronger and a well matched player in the major power game.
In this context, Germany will again play a central role to help the bloc stabilize and strike a balance. However, faced with increasing differences among member states and economic and social divisions, Germany’s policies for Europe are bound to bridge political gaps and unite the continent to overcome differences.
This being the case, there still is a tremendous amount of room for China and Europe to promote their comprehensive strategic partnership. Amid a global economic recession with drastic changes to the international system, it will be necessary for China and the EU to support and cooperate with each other in solidarity. In the meantime, the economic and trade foundations of the two sides calls for further (and very deep) cooperation.