Above photo: China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visits Europe.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s tour of Europe comes at a time of heavy US pressure for the EU to step back from its dialogue and cooperation with China.
But despite the frosty reception by some, a number of people are voicing support for a more balanced view of China, taking in all facets of the relationship.
Against the backdrop of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Europe, there are signs Germany and the rest of Europe are tilting towards “partial Trumpism”, adversely affecting Sino-European relations. The trust and understanding that was hard-earned through extensive dialogue and cooperation has been undermined, and the relationship as a whole has been politicized.
China is made to seem like a “systemic rival” of Europe. There is a clear trend of increasing hostility in Europe towards China.
Yet, in some ways, there has also been a notable shift in German views about China. On August 17, Der Tagesspiegel published a column titled, “The West has to prove that it offers the better life”, which emphasized the role positive competition plays in Sino-European relations. It pointed out that if Europe can take effective action against internal social divides, then the West does not have to fear China’s rise.
On August 2, the directors of 10 Confucius Institutes in Germany issued a joint statement to decry the politicization of these institutes. The statement notes that the institutes, which are similar to Germany’s Goethe-Institut, make important contributions to Sino-German academic, cultural and social exchanges.
So far, against a backdrop of negative coverage of China in Europe, these voices are in the minority but may point to a new direction in European opinion.
It’s not strange to see discordance in European views towards China – how to define and develop relations is a great challenge for Europe. This is not only the result of the unprecedented scale and speed of China’s development but more importantly, it reflects a “gap of understanding” on the part of Europe towards a rapidly changing China, which leads to difficulty in categorizing it as a partner, competitor or rival.
However, because of ideological influences, European media and think tanks tend to see China as a threat, ignoring the history of cooperation and mutual benefit. Volker Stanzel, a political analyst and former German ambassador to China, told German Radio that “China’s economy is gradually eroding European unity”, with Western firms being “pushed out of China”. He proposes that Europe jointly take countermeasures against China.
Such voices have completely missed the cause and effect. China’s economic growth and especially its open markets have been a boon to Germany, and have not undermined European unity. Foreign capital flowing into Chinese stock markets has nearly doubled over the past two years, reaching almost US$600 billion.
Talking to some European firms, I was told that among all their branches worldwide, their business in China was the first to recover after the outbreak of the pandemic, with revenues exceeding those elsewhere, which will buttress their budgets this year.
In June, the EU Chamber of Commerce in China and Roland Berger published the “European Business in China Business Confidence Survey 2020,” which shows that the percentage of firms considering moving operations out of China has dropped from 15 percent to 11 percent. This shows that trading and business relations between China and Europe remain strong. China does not want European firms to leave China and is taking various measures to encourage them to stay.
It is true that the standards for goods and services in Chinese markets are rising, requiring greater innovation and quality control efforts by all firms; this is both a challenge and an opportunity for European firms. However, politicizing these challenges will only make the problem more difficult to solve, and will do nothing to help these firms.
Another source of tension in Europe’s relationship with China comes from the US. Europe’s long-time ally has continuously pressured European countries to take a stand on US-China strategic competition, on issues such as 5G development and Huawei.
Some European countries have been forced to acquiesce, but still try to maintain their own sovereignty and interests against American demands, such as through restrictions on the scope of Huawei’s operations, leaving them still able to benefit from Huawei’s technology.
Some European media outlets clearly perceived that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Europe in August was aimed at containing China and Russia, while dividing Europe, to achieve its economic and geopolitical goal of maintaining global hegemony. For America, Europe is no doubt only a tool for its global ambitions.
Recent data shows that, despite Covid-19, Sino-European economic relations have continued to grow, displaying great resilience and complementarity. Further, the efforts made in May to provide “express channels” to facilitate European executives, engineers and others returning to their work in China, amid Covid-19 travel restrictions, underline the willingness of both sides to work together. This shows that bilateral ties are far stronger than some media and political figures would have you believe.
Some German media have also criticized Chancellor Angela Merkel for lacking a big-picture China strategy, saying that she treats China-German relations as just an economic relationship. They have a point. Economic ties involve more than the economic exchange of goods and services.
It should be clear that the China-Europe and China-Germany relationship are not just about single issues, but also affect the overall development outlook of all concerned. Therefore, one should not view these ties through a narrow lens, and certainly not add ideological shackles to them. The diverse breadth of ties requires all sides to rationally grow and maintain them. Recent German perspectives on China that are based on reason and logic would be a positive trend.
Jiang Feng is a professor and research fellow at Shanghai International Studies University and a China Forum expert.