Observer | Fu Ying: China, EU need to prioritize cooperation in relations


The year 2023 has marked the 20th anniversary of the establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership between China and the European Union and 2024 will mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and France. 

Many European countries including France have built important partnerships and carried out comprehensive cooperation with China at a rapid pace since Beijing launched reform and opening-up. 

In 2022 trade between China and the EU reached US$847.3 billion and mutually beneficial cooperation benefited the peoples of both sides. Europe led the world in practicing regional integration and multilateral governance, and is an advocate and pioneer of positive global agendas such as green development. China and Europe share numerous common interests, which provide compelling reasons and a solid need to work together.

There are also challenges in China-Europe relations. For example, Chinese talking with European politicians or journalists can easily find that they tend to highlight their differences of values and political principles with China. Human rights issues have been a longstanding concern, like an old picture frame hanging on the wall. No matter how much China has progressed, the European side can always put something on it to say that China's human rights are not good. 

There may be two factors contributing to this mindset. Firstly, there is a lack of comprehensive knowledge about China in Europe. Secondly, some people in Europe keep a Eurocentric perception and are inclined to worry or be critical about things related to China. Unfortunately, the two sides did not address and resolve their differences through exchanges during past years of cooperation. Now these problems have become new obstacles amidst a changing international landscape.

In 2019 the European Commission defined China as a "partner, economic competitor and a systemic rival," and the term "systemic rival" is now often found in China-related documents issued in Europe. Chinese translators came up with different versions of this term and the Europeans also offered various explanations of its definition. Some European scholars stressed that China poses challenges and competition to Europe in all aspects. The most important is the difference in the political system. 

Should that be the reason, are the Europeans thinking of competing with the Chinese political system? How are we going to compete? Are we going to try to replace each other's systems? The United States has provoked strategic competition with China mainly because of its fear of China's catching up and of American hegemonic power being taken over by China. It is competing with China for world power. Although China has no intention or policy to compete for world hegemony, for some Americans the growth of China in itself is a threat.

The concerns raised by the European side about China mainly involve differences on specific issues and opinions, many of which can be clarified and resolved through discussions or even debates. There are issues upon which the two sides have to agree to disagree, seeking common ground while reserving differences. The European side also needs to pay attention to China's concerns. But the existence of differences should not prevent cooperation. Taking differences over political systems as an example, the two sides can enhance understanding through dialogue. Many European countries have gone through historical ups and downs including wars and revolutions, and have grown their systemic management institutions and principles which are successful now on their land, but not without difficulties and challenges. 

China's political system has also been constructed and improved through continuous selection and complex social evolution. It has both the guidance of the modern Communist Party's political theory and the experiences accumulated through the evolution of Chinese civilization. The success of China's development recognized by the world today is also the success of China's political system, and of course, it needs to be constantly improved. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping has stressed that tolerance, coexistence, exchanges and mutual learning among different civilizations play an irreplaceable role in advancing humanity's modernization process and making the garden of world civilization flourish, as the future of all countries is closely connected nowadays. He described the coexistence of different paths for countries as each cherishing one's own beauty. This is quoted from Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong who explained the Chinese believe in "one world": "to cherish one's own beauty, respect the other's beauty and when both beauties are respected and cherished, the world will become one."

Europe has a close relationship with the United States, but it would not want to see the world divided by power rivalry. Therefore, Europe can play the role of being a strategic counterweight to the multipolar trend emerging in the world rather than contribute to the fragmentation of the world. As for competition, can we understand "healthy competition" in terms of the relationship between Michelangelo and Da Vinci? They both tried to do better, thus leaving brilliant and valuable legacies to mankind. 

As President Emmanuel Macron of France said: EU member states should avoid becoming "vassals" and that the bloc could function as a "third pole" in geopolitics alongside the US and China. Indeed, when the world moves towards multipolarity, it's very important that countries like China and France as well as other European countries have profound discussions on the prospect. The human world is yet to experience peaceful multipolar governance. We need to explore theoretically and practically how to deal with common international challenges in the future so as to build a community of shared future for mankind that can accommodate the interests of all parties. On the whole, China-EU relations are resilient. As President Xi put it during the tripartite meeting with France and the European Commission in April 2023: "China and the EU share extensive common interests. Cooperation and common ground between the two sides outweigh competition and differences."

China and France have planned activities for 2024 and people on both sides have high expectations for increasing exchanges. It is hoped that the relevant institutions will further facilitate the procedures and allow more effective communication and exchanges between the two peoples. We also hope that the younger generation can put forward constructive suggestions for cultural exchanges and for meeting common challenges facing mankind.

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