Matteo Garavoglia is Research Associate at the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations and visiting Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His research work focuses on European integration, EU foreign policy and Europe - China relations.
European Commission’s President Ursula Von del Layen and European Council’s President Charles Michel are flying to China for a high-level summit with President Xi Jinping. They follow on the footsteps of European Union High Representative Josep Borrell and European Commission Vice-Presidents Valdis Dombrovskis and Věra Jourová. As they land in Beijing, there are a number of trends that both European and Chinese officials should be aware of and consider looking into for the sake of the Sino-European relationship and global affairs.
A defining feature of present-day China is its striking absence of foreigners. While it is always possible to spot the odd European or American in the usual tourist hotspots across Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, the numbers are very far from what they used to be pre-Covid. Perhaps even more worryingly when it comes to the relationship between Europe and China, what has dramatically shrunk is the pool of foreign scholars that are investing significant periods of time working in Chinese institutions and of Chinese academics carrying out research in Western universities. The recent Chinese loosening of visa restrictions for citizens of France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain might in the future somewhat improve the situation. But for the time being, expertise is in low supply on both sides: few Europeans have a sophisticated understanding of post-Covid China, and few Chinese seem to fully grasp how far Europe has changed since the eruption of the conflict in Ukraine. For all the challenges that this entails, both Brussels and Beijing have a mutual interest in re-starting meaningful people-to-people exchanges as a means to re-learning to constructively engage with each other.
Europeans might have concerns when it comes to what they perceive to be unfair trade practices, restricted market access, regulatory obstacles and subsidies of all kinds that deny them a level-playing field when competing with their Chinese counterparts. But, at the same time, Europeans should acknowledge how western nations have for decades had no problem with those very same practices that benefitted their own interests. Perhaps more importantly, Europeans must acknowledge that, even on a level-playing field, Chinese companies are extraordinary global systemic players. While Brussels’ wish to roll out short-term countermeasures to protect its economic interests is understandable, a more systemic approach is needed to go beyond the much-advertised “de-risking instead of de-coupling” slogan. Europeans must look for Beijing far away from China and develop coherent yet ad hoc strategies to regain market shares worldwide. They must acknowledge that China is an extraordinarily competitive global economic player and engage with it without preconceptions. Competition is the word of the game. Europeans invented it and they should get on with it without hiding behind lofty rhetoric.
This state of affairs is firmly anchored within a broader context characterised by a paradigm shift in Europe’s thinking about China. Throughout the past decade, Europeans had generally bought into the win-win narrative espoused by Chinese officials according to which a strengthening of the Sino-European economic relationship would have seen both continents reap long-term benefits. Faced with mounting evidence of trade imbalances, lost market shares and a closed domestic Chinese market, the calculus has changed for good. Private conversations with European officials in both Brussels and Beijing now almost invariably end up with an acknowledgment that economic countermeasures are long overdue. The mood is sour in both Germany and France as much as in post-Brexit United Kingdom and many are clamouring for a new relationship with China.
Within all the doom and gloom, thankfully there is still some room for cooperation between Europe and China. A focus on the provision of global common goods is the way forward. The protection of biodiversity and the world’s oceans, the fight against global warming, vaccines and pandemic preparedness, global food security, development assistance, humanitarian aid, digital governance and even migration and asylum: these are some of the areas where both Europeans and Chinese see the potential for common ground. Institutionalising a structured approach to these challenges through multilateral mechanisms (possibly but not exclusively through the United Nations as a forum that both Europe and China feel relatively comfortable with) could contribute to rebuilding some of the trust lost over the last few years and, at the same time, deliver tangible benefits for the global community. For the sake of all of humanity, two economic giants like Europe and China must work together.
In many informal conversations, European officials consistently express their desire to avoid having to choose between Washington and Beijing. They seem eager for Europe to develop and sustain an autonomous position when it comes to Brussels’s geostrategic posture vis-à-vis Beijing. And yet, at the same time, they are absolutely unequivocal when it comes to the choice that Europe would make if forced to pick sides between China and the United States. Within this context, the jury is still out as to whether Brussels will increasingly play a proactive role in nurturing the multipolar order advocated by Beijing or simply end up aligning itself with Washington.