When it comes to the China-EU relationship, it is hard to describe and summarize it in one word as it has been transforming and shifting so considerably over the past decades. From a significant trading partner to the most important source of imports to the EU, to now a country that is labeled with labels, ranging from partner, competitor, to systemic rival by the EU, China clearly has had an intriguing relationship with the EU over the past 30 to 40 years. What is China’s role in relation to the EU? How do we describe the changing dynamics in China-EU relations in light of the events that happened in the past two years? Looking ahead, what can we expect from the relationship?
TIO: Given the dynamics of the overall relations between China and the EU, could you comment on what you view to be China’s past and evolving trends, undergirding Sino-European relations?
Jin: From my point of view, Sino-European trade relations and political relations are not bad if we compare them with Sino-US relations. China has been the largest trading partner of the EU for many years. We import so many things from European countries, and we also export so many things to European countries. We have many investors from European countries, which have their factories, companies, and products here. You see many European products and commodities in both big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and many very remote areas.
We hope that the relations between China and Europe will further improve in the future. We share agreements on many things. We share common viewpoints in a wide range of international affairs. I hope we will have more European businesspeople coming to China. We hope the European Union, as a whole, can be more open to Chinese people, including Chinese tourists, especially after COVID.
Biscop: To pick up on your last comment, first, less open exchange is definitely a great pity. Even though we are not cut-off thanks to the Internet, the depth of exchange is not quite the same as when you're in person. Usually, I would spend two weeks every year in the summer to teach at Renmin University of China in Beijing and visit different Chinese think tanks and universities. I do hope academic exchange can restart very soon, because it strikes me time and time again that when Chinese students can spend the year in Brussels and Belgian students in Beijing, you can really begin to understand what the other is doing.
And now, China has become a global presence. EU-China relations changed as China’s international posture changed. China has definitely re-established itself as a great power, I would say, at the very latest from 2008 after the financial crisis. There is not a country in the world where China is not present in political and economic terms, and increasingly, therefore, China is also acquiring security interests because if you have global economic and political interests, that brings certain security interests as well. And so, the EU has been adapting, from seeing China mostly as an economic partner and competitor, to seeing it also as a great power. I think the initial position was the fact that China as a great power is normal and natural, when you look at the history of China, its weight, and its science. The fact in itself that China is a great power was not seen as a threat. The question that Europeans pose is: how will China behave as a great power? Will it operate within the rules of the existing world order? Or will it not? I still think that is the basic, mainstream attitude. That is to say, it is perfectly normal that China is a great power and there is not really this idea, as is widespread in the U.S., that the rise of China is in itself problematic. It all depends on which strategy China will pursue.
There are instances in which interests clash and in which the majority of Europeans feel that China behaves as a rival, because it breaks international law, or because it directly undermines [our] sovereignty. I will just name two examples. One is the South China Sea. That's a very complicated issue. Two is all kinds of hybrid actions against European states from cyber actions to economic coercion, and so on and so forth. Therefore, over time, the EU came up with what I think is meant as a very nuanced approach, which is, well, we are not going to say China is an adversary, because it is also a partner and an economic competitor, but on specific issues, a rival.
And hence this labeling of partner, competitor, and rival. But the precise aim, I think, is to be able to avoid the worsening of tensions and to avoid a disagreement in one area, which necessarily contaminates all other areas. This is still where we are. But for the debate in Europe, the tone is shifting, partially because of the U.S. holding a different view. But I think it is also partially the reaction to certain Chinese actions that came across as very negative in Europe. I think we'll have to see how we can somehow get this back on track and make sure that relations will improve rather than continue to deteriorate as they have in the last year or year and a half.
TIO: On the point concerning the compartmentalization approach that Professor Biscop highlighted, Professor Jin, do you agree with this sort of idealism concerning the separation and compartmentalization of the relationship? Do you think it's unrealistic? Or do you think it's also something that China is, in fact, open to adopting as well when it comes to setting aside differences and focusing on areas of pure cooperation?
Jin: First, I don’t think I agree with the comment about China undermining the sovereignty of the EU members. There is an old saying in China—do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire. China has always respected the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. Now, in the 21st century, we are all striving to construct an international order that is equal and inclusive. No country has the right to stand on a moral high ground, lecturing another country about what to do with their own domestic issues and no one has the right to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs. Doing so will not only hurt the relationship between states but also compromise the long-term mutual trust and cooperation that countries have built over years.
China and the EU have already become each other’s largest trading partner, meaning that the economies of the two sides are complementary and interconnected and that the relationship is mutually beneficial. We should “strike while the iron is hot” to take China-EU relations to a higher level, living up to the sound foundation of cooperation laid by the leaders of the two sides and creating a paradigm of international cooperation for mutual benefit and win-win results.
As for economic coercion, my short response is that in international trade, China has always advocated for upholding the rules of WTO, creating a fair and competitive market environment, and never discriminating against any country or enterprise. And so I believe that there is no such problem as economic coercion. I hope that the EU will take an objective and fair stance when dealing with issues that concern China.
On your question about compartmentalization, I think I agree. China and the EU are probably rivals in some areas; but in most areas, we are still partners. In the long run, we should have some basis, for example, when it comes to economic relations and cultural exchanges. Some problems in one area should not affect other areas. For example, we have been talking about the comprehensive investment agreement for many years, but we failed to seal such an agreement. We’re still waiting for the day to sign it. Also, even though China is the second-largest economy in the world, I don't think China will become a superpower like the U.S. anytime soon. China is still a developing country. In some areas we are strong and competitive, but in many areas, we are not comparable to the U.S. For example, we have lifted many people from poverty over the past couple of years, but there are still many poor people living in remote areas. In a lot of rural areas, the living standards of people are still very low.
We are still lagging behind in technology and in many industrial products. That's why we are still importing a lot of high-end products from Germany, France, the UK, Austria, and even the U.S., although the U.S. probably doesn’t want to export their high-end products to China. China-EU relations should have a much brighter future. Overall, we should not think of each other as an enemy or a rival. If we think of each other as a good partner, that would be beneficial for both parties, and this will bring prosperity to both peoples. That's my idea.
Biscop: Two things I want to say on that, maybe one in general and one specific. I think specifically on the CAI, what happened from the EU’s point of view was that the EU announced the agreement in December 2020, and then in March 2021 sanctions were adopted against China over concerns in Europe about the treatment of the Uyghur citizens of China.
Now, in the logic of compartmentalization, that works, right? You agree on one issue, trade and the economy, yet you disagree over another issue. The EU sanctions were, in reality, mostly symbolic. Then China responded in turn with sanctions, which were much more far-reaching. My interpretation, and I think the interpretation of the majority in Europe, is that the Chinese reaction was an overreaction and broke the logic of compartmentalization by sanctioning so many MPs and MEPs and academics. The result is that those MPs and MEPs will not ratify the CAI as long as they are on the Chinese sanctions list. And I think that is only right. I think China, by responding with far more severe sanctions to the EU symbolic sanctions, broke the logic of compartmentalization. Frankly, I do not see how that is in China’s interest, because the EU is the only other global player that is Western, willing to pursue this logic. Why would you try to undo it?
The general point I wanted to make is this: there is confusion about what the term “systemic rival” means. Is it about the different domestic systems? Or is it about the approach to the international system? In my view, what the EU should care about as a priority is the international system. I think that when China, in the view of the EU, goes directly against European interests by violating the rules of the international system, we ought to push back against that. When it comes to China’s domestic political system, I think that as a rule, we should not see that in terms of rivalry. For sure there are many aspects of China’s domestic political system that the EU does not agree with, and I do think that the EU as a union of democratic states has a moral duty to criticize human rights violations wherever it perceives them. But I do not think that the EU has the moral duty to try and enforce respect for human rights wherever it sees violations. It also doesn’t have the leverage for that.
My view of what the EU should do is the following. Whenever it sees human rights violations, criticize them in order to maintain the norm of human rights, but don’t adopt sanction after sanction because it is endless. Keep your powder dry and use effective sanctions when we feel that other states are crossing the line in their foreign policy. That's my rather pragmatic view.
TIO: And this ties us back to the broader point of if we are seeking to rekindle the CAI and to readvance its progress within the European Parliament, what exactly could both sides do? In other words, if we are indeed framing our discussion around this lens of obtaining or ensuring the successes of the CAI, what would you expect from the other side?
Biscop: We are indeed in a stalemate, and it has been aggravated by what happened with Lithuania and the Chinese reaction that drew in the whole EU. I think of how climbing down the tree simultaneously will be tricky. But I agree that it would be very much in the mutual interest to take the CAI forward and to somehow improve relations again. But I also think that it will be difficult if there is not some opening gesture from the Chinese side because I think what one must realize is that these sanctions, against members of parliament and academics, are seen as going too far and serve to really unite Europe against China. I think that a first step must be taken by China in order for the EU to be able to move ahead with the CAI. On the European side, that should also be acknowledged; if that step is taken and China drops all sanctions, we should ratify the CAI.
One thing to note is that we should not link it to other issue areas over which we disagree. We should continue to compartmentalize. On the Lithuania issue, which is now an issue in peril, I think Lithuania had the right to leave the “17 + 1” initiative. Nobody can be forced to stay in a format if you think that it no longer adds value. Lithuania wanted the opening of TRO (Taipei Representative Office) on its territory. Several of the EU member states have TROs already, and there’s also one here in Brussels. However, I do think Lithuania, by calling it the Taiwan Representative Office, went too far because everybody knows that it is a very touchy symbolic issue. Symbols tend to push out rationality in favor of emotions and very easily lead to escalation. If the idea was to help Taiwan, I don’t think creating this crisis helps Taiwan in any way. It's rather instrumentalizing Taiwan to send a message to Beijing. I think it was not very smart of Lithuania to name it this way.
Then again, I do think the Chinese reaction was an overreaction and China should realize that trying to push Lithuania out of the EU single market is not going to work. Again, you unite the whole EU against the Chinese policy. But I do think that maybe on this issue, a compromise could entail that the name of the office is changed—all the other TROs across the EU are called Taipei Representative Office—this is maybe the first move. This could then allow China to drop all of its currently far-reaching measures against Lithuania and the EU as a whole.
Jin: As Professor Biscop mentioned, “Don’t abuse sanctions.” Use sanctions at the right place, at the right time, and against the right country. If you abuse them, they would not work well. Even when it comes to human rights violations, I think every country has such problems, even in the U.S., the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance. Many black people took to the streets to protest against the government and the police. However, I don’t hear many criticisms from Europe on such things. Professor Biscop, could you give us some examples of human rights violations? Have the EU criticized American human rights problems?
Another point I wish to pick up on in your previous comment is the reason for the CAI’s suspension. The whole thing about the so-called Xinjiang issue was part of the deliberate plan of the U.S. to concoct with anti-China forces to contain China’s development by means of spreading lies and conducting disinformation campaigns. I wonder how many of those in Washington have actually been to Xinjiang. Their accusations have completely disregarded China’s achievements in human rights development in Xinjiang and other places over the past few decades to maintain regional security and stability and advance prosperity. And the fact that the EU was not only willing to follow suit but has actually been supporting the U.S. in containing China by sanctioning China and suspending the CAI, which is supposed to be beneficial to the European people, is simply astounding. In this case, China has to respond. The aim of our action is two-fold. One is for cautionary purposes. The other is to show China’s resolution in defending our long-lasting principles of foreign policy. I hope that the EU can understand the situation at hand clearly. I hope it can uphold a diplomatic strategy that is independent from the American stance.
Now regarding the sanctions that led to the suspension of the CAI, the EU made the first move by sanctioning relevant personnel and institutions in Xinjiang based on some trumped-up charges. China was not allowed to respond and fight back, and then the EU attributed the cause of the frayed relationship between the two sides entirely to China. This is the first time the EU has ever imposed a sanction on China, and I have to say again that this act totally disregarded the interests of the European people, and that joining the US-led group against China is just an act of “shooting itself in the foot.” Now, I cannot help but wonder what do you mean by “strategic autonomy”? This is rather perplexing as it is hard for me to comprehend this policy move, because where you are heading is essentially counter to what your people want, namely, a better life. Moreover, the European Parliament even intensified the sanctions and canceled the review of the CAI to “force” China to lift sanctions vis-à-vis the EU side. I think this kind of coercion is meaningless. The CAI is not a “gift” from the EU to China or the other way around. And, about how the agreement eventually turned out, I can only express regret.
Biscop: There are clearly concerns in Europe and we do have a lot of debates here also, about the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, or the current situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, which actually gets a lot of media coverage. Also, I think what gets more attention on our side, for example, is the situation of refugees trying to reach Europe that are staying in camps, either within the EU or on the EU borders, very often in very deplorable conditions.
So, for sure, this is not a black and white picture. I think as a first step, every player should make sure that they live up to their own values at home. I fully agree. I also think that some players instrumentalize human rights for geopolitics and some actors will criticize China more, because they see China as a geopolitical rival and see human rights as an instrument to be used against China. That happens too. But personally, I think every situation should still be judged on its own merits, right? There are definitely serious human rights issues in the U.S. and in the EU that should also be assessed. That said, the situation in China should also be assessed on its own merits. That is how I would try to formulate a nuanced view about this.
TIO: Now let’s talk about the U.S. Professor Jin noted that we need not let the U.S. get in the way of things when it comes to China-EU dynamics. But Professor Biscop noted that inevitably, with the hardening stance and hawkishness from Washington, we are seeing this creep of tension into the Eurasian relationship. Is it possible to keep the U.S. out of the Sino-European relationship for the sake of both China and the EU?
Biscop: I think it's not possible, because the U.S. is another great power and global player. What the U.S. does, or doesn't do, has such a great impact on any aspect of world politics—the same applies to China. Therefore, it is impossible to keep the U.S. out of this relationship. So, my view on this is, again, that I try to be very, very nuanced. The EU is not and should not look for an equidistant position between the U.S. and China. In terms of history, culture, the way of life, and the type of society, we are obviously closer to the U.S. and will likely remain much closer to the U.S. for a long time to come. There is a clear preference in Europe to pursue our interests together with the U.S. whenever possible. But increasingly, there is the awareness that US interests are not always the same as European interests, because the starting position is different, specifically when it comes to China. Whereas the U.S. sees China as a rival to its own position as a great power, the EU does not. It sees China as a great challenger, but not really as a rival to its own position in global politics.
So I think the EU has, over the last couple of years, positioned itself as an independent player that is close to the U.S. but conducts its own assessment, and that is not just following the U.S. It has crafted its own approach, notably this partner-competitor-rival idea, which is quite different from the US strategy. I dub this approach: “cooperate when you can but push back when you must.” For the U.S., it’s a bit the opposite. It’s “push back when you can and cooperate when you must”.
So, I think this is how the EU should try to continue: it should start from its own interests and its own priorities, interacting with both the U.S. and China and also making it clear to the U.S., much more proactively, what the EU strategy is. In the past, I think we were often a bit too reactive. Now we have to be more proactive. I think now we are still waiting: what is the US strategy towards China? What was made very clear during the Trump administration was that the US strategy seemed to be “make China small again.” Well, that is not going to happen. If that's your strategy, it will not work, so you're set for a rivalry without end. I think the Biden approach is different, but it is still not so clear what the strategic objective is vis-à-vis China. I think for the EU, we should be clear that our objective is to work with China within the rules of the current world order. As long as that is possible, as long as China pursues its legitimate interests in legitimate ways, we should try to achieve that.
Jin: I traveled and worked in European countries. I also stayed in the U.S., in San Francisco and Boston for some years. I would say I know something about the U.S. More and more Chinese people believe that if Americans can keep their hands off, China-EU relations could be better. A lot of trouble between China and Europe did not result from either China or Europe. Much of it was because of the U.S. Chinese people increasingly believe that Washington is not happy about Sino-European relations getting better because we are in a competition. The Americans would benefit if China and the EU fight against each other, and if we compete with each other. I think speaking from the core interests of Europe and China, we should not let the U.S. get in our way. We should strive for a brighter future by creating more opportunities for economic and cultural exchanges. And this should involve more groups and individuals including the business sector. For example, after the two sides gradually ease their border control, we should have more investors coming to Europe and to China. We should also encourage tourism. And, of course, we should have more high-level exchanges that could help improve relations. We should acknowledge our common interests and areas of agreement. Too much attention on disagreements will only reinforce the chasm between the two sides and reluctance to improve relations. In China, we have a saying “qiutong cunyi (求同存异)”— “seeking common ground while shelving differences.” If we pay much more attention to the cooperative parts of our bilateral relations, the future would be brighter.
TIO: The EU, for the long and short of it, is not a unified entity. It’s very diverse in many ways, comes in many shapes and forms with different countries, and adopts different political cultures, civic cultures, and values. Professor Biscop, how can China and the EU, as a collective, make the most productive use of such pluralism, to achieve “qiutong cunyi”?
The EU is heterogeneous. It has 27 member states with their own history, geography, and culture. But at the same time, whenever I move out of Europe, I feel distinctly European, more so than Belgian. Therefore, I would not overstate that heterogeneity. In terms of culture, there is a European cultural space. A space, where we all read each other’s authors, listen to each other’s music, and watch each other’s films. There is also an enormous amount of travel, with people working and studying across the EU. In terms of the economy, it is one entity. I always say that even the bigger member states are in a way provinces of the EU single market, and the border that counts is not so much the national border anymore. It is the border of the single market or the border of the eurozone that really determines our security and prosperity.
So, I do think the EU is a state-like organization. It’s obviously not a state, but it’s also not just an international organization. It’s a state-like organization. Clearly, the EU works best where it is most integrated, which is the economic sphere. In the diplomatic and defense spheres, it remains entirely intergovernmental. Everything is done by unanimity. Many member states still do not have a sufficiently European reflex. They would play the national card first until they realize that it doesn’t work.
But I do think that the trend still indicates a convergence of interests of these member states, and therefore, an “ever closer union” if you use the term from the treaty. If you are another global power, you may well think it’s in your interests to divide the EU to play up the divide. But is that really in the Chinese interests? I’m not sure. I do think that it is very much in China’s interests to have a strong EU with a strong commitment to multilateralism, which is more beneficial to China. If there is no European Union, China would only have Washington and Moscow to deal with.
Jin: Chinese leaders stressed many times, almost every year, that China hopes the EU could be more united and stronger. In terms of China-EU relations, the two sides should try their best to fulfill their commitments to help each other and encourage more exchanges and cooperation. My suggestion is: do not let other things interfere too much with the promising areas and meanwhile do not infringe upon China’s core interests. Again, China and European countries have very different cultures and so oftentimes, the same matters would have different levels of sensitivity. An outstanding example is salary. In the West, questions concerning income or salary are very sensitive to individuals as this is considered private, though, like me, many people in China may be more willing to be open up about such matters. I think the logic is the same.
So, let us not always think of each other as geopolitical rivals. We can be competitors. For example, we are business competitors with Europe. This is normal. Even within Europe, states compete with each other. The UK and France, the UK and Germany, and Germany and France. This is understandable. But we should try our best not to exaggerate the competitive elements, and not to let the competitive part overwhelm the cooperative part. That’s my idea. During the winter, many Chinese people go to Switzerland to ski. Last month, when we were in the middle of the Winter Olympics, China invited a lot of people to come to China for the Games. These are the kind of exchanges that have been lacking in recent years, due to the pandemic and other reasons. And these are the exchanges that should be promoted.
TIO: Now, let’s bring our conversation to the now and what's happening right now. We’ve seen leadership turnover in European countries like Germany and France. I guess a question to consult you both on is: what are the implications of such leadership or cabinet turnovers in European countries, especially major European countries, along with the implications on Sino-European relations, if any at all?
Jin: My stance is always that one should not overstate this. Angela Merkel made a major contribution to European policymaking. She was the chancellor for a long time. Obviously, new governments can bring a change in policy, sometimes a radical change. But it seems to me, that in the case of Germany, France is still the core of the European project. I can imagine that there will be some hefty debates within the German government about some sensitive topics. But by and large, it seems that the government is continuing the same pragmatic course that the previous government set. And now we also have presidential elections in France. I suppose the likeliest outcome is for Macron to be reelected, then it will be very important for the French and German governments to find an alignment on some core topics, something they have been trying to do these days.
For example, Macron went to Germany and met Chancellor Scholz to align their positions on Ukraine and Russia. But again, this is a union of 27 member states. Rebalancing is just how it works. However, I do not expect that these changes in government will lead to any big shifts in the policy towards China. Other factors might, but not the changes in government.
Biscop: I appreciate your view. The EU is a union of 27 countries, and it represents a relatively new form of governance. We also hope that the government changes at the member state level will not affect our relations, neither our political relations nor our business relations. Our relations should remain focused on the long run. Therefore, we should adopt a more sustainable strategy and a broader outlook that focus on the long-term.
TIO: On that note, the follow-up question for Professor Jin is: do you think there’s room for China to consider, modify, or recalibrate the way it engages with individual members of the EU states, such that there could be a more harmonious and constructive relationship going forward? And, for Professor Biscop to what extent do you see this stability of independence from individual state politics or a national politics phenomenon plays out historically when it comes to EU stances on foreign policy?
Jin: China respects the EU as a unity, and we also respect the member states individually. We have close cooperation with the EU and the states. We attach great importance to the bilateral cooperation with the EU and also with the individual countries. When it comes down to specific sectors of cooperation with the Chinese counterparts, each country has its own requirements and demand for Chinese products. The same applies to China. China imports cars from Germany and France but we import wool from other countries since every country has its own comparative advantages. So, of course, there’s room for improvement in China’s relations with different European states. But the approach can be different based on the different audiences we are dealing with.
Biscop: As I said, the EU is a state-like organization. I personally am a Euro Federalist. I would like to see the EU evolve toward a fully-fledged federal state. But within that federal state, you would still have member states. In my view, it would make sense that increasingly, we would develop a single common foreign policy, a single defense policy, but that will be a very slow evolution.
So, I think there will be a complex interplay between the EU level and the level of member states, especially in diplomacy and defense. Where I think things will move faster is in the economic sphere due to converging interests. For example, as we have mentioned geopolitics, there is also geo-economics, and increasingly, the great powers are positioning themselves towards each other in the economic field.
So, controlling who can do what on your market, investment, creating subsidies, but also deterring and defending against all kinds of hybrid actions from economic coercion, cyber-attacks, corruption, to fake news and so on. Increasingly, these are tools that you have to use at the EU level, and then that will entail a shift of authority to the European Commission. Therefore, I see a really important area where I expect more integration to happen in the short to medium term. In the diplomatic and defense sphere, I fear it will continue to move slowly, even though it would be very much in our interest to integrate to the same extent we have integrated into the economic area.
TIO: Thank you. The last focus of our discussion is about the non-economic spheres, including cultural exchanges, technological collaboration, and educational synergy. These are domains in which both China and the EU could do more in rendering themselves open to the current paths, so to speak. Professor Biscop, and then Professor Jin, what are your thoughts on how China and the EU could collaborate beyond trade and investment in other domains as well?
Biscop: That’s a good point. I don’t have a Nobel Prize-winning answer to that, but I do think we have to take the partner bit of the partner-competitor-rival relationship seriously and look for shared interests and open up new domains for multilateral cooperation, in the sense of bringing on board other countries and taking initiatives. I definitely think of everything related to the green transition. But I would also think about connectivity. There’s the Belt and Road Initiative and on the EU side, there is the Global Gateway. Perhaps we should prioritize the target countries and consider: what are their needs? How can the different connectivity projects of the great powers contribute to them so that they won’t develop into competing projects? I think the whole connectivity sphere will be massively interesting, and definitely the ecological climate sphere as well.
Jin: I still am very optimistic about the CAI, and we believe we will have a good result. I recently read some data from a European newspaper, and it suggested that Chinese consumers bought more luxury goods from European countries last year. It shows that even with COVID and other factors that are supposedly obstructing our bilateral relationship, Chinese consumers love your high-quality products and brands. So, aside from the areas that Professor Biscop just mentioned—tourism, and also student exchanges—those areas that are of utmost concern for ordinary Chinese and European people, are areas that should be promoted by the two sides for furthering mutual understanding and advancing prosperity. Another important thing to note is for China and Europe to overcome COVID hand-in-hand. It is critical for the two to collaborate on scientific and technological advancement, as viruses don’t respect borders, and so the two should join efforts in making sure that emergencies like the pandemic are tackled efficiently.
This dialogue was moderated by TI Youth Observer and PhD candidate at Oxford University Brian Wong Yueshun and International Communications Officer of Taihe Institute Kang Yingyue.