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15 July Webinar: The EU-China Strategic Partnership

15 July 2020

On 15 July, the EU-Asia Centre and the EPC co-hosted a webinar on the EU-China Strategic Partnership with Cui Hongjian (Director for Europe, China Institute of International Studies), Maaike Okano-Heijmans (Senior Research Fellow, Clingendael Institute) and Fraser Cameron (Director, EU-Asia Centre). Fabian Zuleeg, Chief Executive of the EPC, moderated the event.

Mr Cameron emphasized that while the EU had last year labeled China a systemic rival, it had also made clear in the same policy it needs China to be a strategic partner as well regardless. China’s size and share of the world economy dictate that it must be part of the solutions to climate change, security, economic recovery and other global issues. As opposed to the containment policy chosen by the US, the EU remains strongly committed to engage China, though it will also be more hard nosed defending its values and interests. Cooperating on mitigating the impact of the pandemic as well on preventing future pandemics should also be a priority going forward.

Mr Cui argued that one the largest issue in EU-China relations is of perceptions. Definitions such as systemic rival and economic rival can become barriers to trust. The two sides should find mutually accepted perceptions and narratives to move forward with their cooperation. The EU should also be careful to distinguish its approach from that of the US – joining the antagonism of the US could impact the favorable image the EU and European countries enjoy in China. The EU is a core partner to the Chinese plays increasingly important role in Chinese policy, not only because of the pandemic and the US-China tensions, but due to mutual interest in many areas. There should be a search for synergies and cooperation, as well as manage their competition, in different areas, such as AI, connectivity, green economy and digitalization. Cooperation in third countries, such as Africa, could prove an interesting avenue for such cooperation, hopefully exploring alternatives ‘European tech, Chinese investment’ model that has often dominated.

Ms Okano-Heijmans considered that the EU-China relations had become more complicated in 2020 due to the pandemic, China’s focus on the US, the hardening approach in many EU member states and the general turn inwards. To avoid falling into isolationism, new areas of cooperation should be actively sought. Perhaps where the discussions are difficult, cooperation in third countries could be the way forward. The EU could especially focus on digital connectivity and cybergovernance by investing in digital innovation and sovereignty as well as engaging China and others in multilateral forums such as WTO, G20 and ITU. Also the EU-China Connectivity Platform could be expanded from transport to digital aspects. The pandemic had sharpened the focus on supply chain resilience, though the discussion had already began pre-crisis due to US-China tensions as well as EU’s industrial policy considerations in response to Made in China 2025 policies.

On EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, Mr Cameron found that despite the reasonable chance Merkel could wish to make an agerement part of her legacy, the chances of a successful agreement depended much on whether China was willing to make meaningful improvements in its offer on market access and other aspects. The pandemic recovery subsidies and policies also carried a risk of complicating the negotiations. Mr Cui highlighted the China’s challenge of balancing its efforts to maintain stability and growth after the pandemic and the reforms required in the negotiations. Ms Okano Heijmans noted that negotiations kept returning to same issues despite going on for 7 years. The EU trade defense measures, that some years ago been still a taboo, were also a worrying sign from China that the EU found the bilateral approach stuck in slow lane.

The panelists agreed that more expertise in the EU on China and vice versa should be fostered to develop better policies and understanding. The two will remain important partners to each other in many areas, despite the raising concerns in others.

Click here full recording of the event.