How China Sees Europe

In the recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell examine how China sees America and conclude inter alia, that Chinese scholars and policymakers “puzzle over whether the United States intends to use its power to help or hurt China“. That’s logical, if we take into account the similar geostrategic interests and the growing U.S. focus towards the Asia-Pacific region.

Relations between Beijing and Brussels are different, due to a lack of similar geostrategic interests. Economic level represents the primary role in the strategic partnership launched between the EU and PRC in 2003. Today the EU is China´s largest trade partner, export market, technology source and second largest import market. As the first secretary of China’s Mission to the EU Xu Jian has pointed out, “China’s Twelfth Five-Year Plan and the EU’s Europe 2020 Strategy were launched simultaneously, which outlines a grand blueprint for the two sides future cooperation”.

The Twelfth Five-Year Plan has positive impact on international relations and business in particular. The main message, encapsulated in Section 12 of the Plan goes as follows: “To create a win-win situation with raising up the level of Opening“. Chinese ambassador to the EU, Song Zhe, has highlighted some areas which are especially promising for growing EU-PRC cooperation and for European companies in particular.

First, the spending of Chinese households is expected to rise, creating a long term opportunity for European exporters. Second, big efforts to upgrade the technological base of Chinese industry and economy are made in general. European hi-tech industry companies are likely to benefit from these efforts. Third, China is experiencing a great expansion of clean-energy use and environmental-friendly solutions, which are supposed to deal with huge Chinese environmental problems as well as still growing energy demands. This area also offers big opportunities for European companies in the section of low-carbon technologies, in particular. Of course, apart from these opportunities, the access to the Chinese market is associated with threats and obstacles. Increasing competitiveness of Chinese companies in combination with procurement policies that favor domestic Chinese firms could be a serious challenge for European investors. It is also important to mention the old problem of enforcing the protection of intellectual property rights.

If the Twelfth Five-Year Plan brings for European countries new opportunities, as well as threats, it´s really important to also look on “the other side“. How China sees Europe, its current situation and what it means for the future.

As some scholars argue, the value of Europe in the eyes of Chinese leaders has dropped in recent years. Several reasons can be found. The first highlights differences in the perception of international relations and some connected key values. On the one hand, China believes in bilateral solutions of international issues and its own set of principles and values. On the other hand, Europe tries to “socialize“ China with its effort to connect Beijing to international institutions and rules, attempting to force China to adopt European set of norms and principles. These European efforts are strongly unwelcomed and counterproductive among Chinese leaders, because the most criticized values of sovereigntism and non-interference are inseparable parts of Chinese foreign policy.

The second concerns European hesitation about the abolition of the arms embargo, which was imposed on China after the Tiananmen crisis in 1989. It´s also one of the most troubled parts of the PRC-EU relations and Chinese leaders have repeatedly called for its cancelation, because they see the embargo as a kind of “political discrimination“.

The third reason can be found in the poor economic performance of the whole of Europe. The actual perception of Europe is, of course, largely shaped by the Eurozone debt crisis, which has strong negative consequences on the Chinese economy and its growth. In fact, Chinese policy makers believe that the EU debt crisis has dragged China into its worst economic situation in 3 years. This situation means a big threat for the Chinese export-oriented economy so it´s in the Chinese interest to stand with Europe side by side. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao has expressed this thought in the same way: „China is willing, on condition of fully evaluating the risks, to continue to invest in the euro zone sovereign debt market, and strengthen communication and discussion with the European Union, the European Central Bank the IMF and other key countries to support the indebted euro zone countries in overcoming hardships.“. On the other hand, the longer Europe remains in crisis and the more China feels that Europe has a negative impact on the Chinese economy, the lower the chance that Beijing will regard the EU as an equal global player.

But Beijing sees in the growing US and EU debt not just a threat, but also an opportunity. To be more specific, such problems may foreshadow the end of the era dominated by the post-war Bretton Woods system and the G8. If the global economy survives and the Chinese economy alongside with it, its importance will be strengthened and China will be able to be a cornerstone for the new global economic order.

Another important aspect, concerning the future development of European-Chinese relations has to be taken into consideration. Nowadays, China sees the European Union not as a complex unit but as a mutually rival members. This is, of course, a quite negative impression, which could be used by Chinese policy makers for their own profit. On the other hand, China has to be really careful, because economic interdependence between the EU and PRC could be quite dangerous. A failure of European economies would be an equal or even bigger catastrophe for China than for Europe.

Summing up, though the strategic partnership looked promising in 2003, it has become troubled and the future isn´t bright, especially when so much is at stake. Moreover, the value of Europe in the eyes of China, is dropping day by day.

As Bernd von Muenchow-Pohl concludes in his analysis, “Focused on the U.S., China tends to see the EU increasingly as a secondary political force with a shrinking economic base whose importance to its own interests is to a large degree defined by its close alignment with Washington.“

Jiří Suchánek