The year 2008 was a watershed in China’s relations with the outside world, including its relations with Europe. Domestically, the Beijing Olympics carried a strong historical symbolism: the event marked a big step in the national effort at rejuvenation, which has obsessed the Chinese people over the past hundred years. At the same time, Europe was severely hit by the financial crisis, which has triggered serious repercussions across EU countries. In addition to the threat of internal dissolution in the form of, inter alia, the potential Grexit and Brexit, Europe today faces ever increasing security problems in its troubled neighborhoods.
These fundamental changes on both sides have left their mark on the Chinese mindset, leading to a gradual adjustment in the approach to Europe. A rethinking is evident at the psychological, strategic, and policy levels.
At the psychological level, China has become more confident in its foreign policy towards Europe. In line with the rise of China’s overall power, the Chinese people are increasingly optimistic about China’s status in the world and the government’s capability in managing international relations and pursuing its national interests, vis-a-vis the world’s major powers. Generally, Europe has been treated as an equal partner, but it ranks behind the Asia-Pacific neighborhood and the United States on China’s policy agenda. At the strategic level, China for a long time was an ardent supporter of European integration owing to the belief that both, China and Europe could be two key pillars of a multipolar system. Accordingly, cooperation between both sides could effectively prevent the emergence of a global hegemony. However, the setbacks of the EU have undermined China’s faith in a unified Europe.
Due to these psychological and strategic changes, China has also adjusted its policy approach, with an emphasis on pragmatism and opportunism. Rhetorically, China welcomes a more unified Europe. This is exemplified by President Xi Jingping’s speech to the EU in 2014, which centered on abstract ideas of exchange between the two civilizations. However, senior Chinese officials frequently visit individual European countries to advance far more concrete programs and projects. This is where policy change becomes evident: For example, China has initiated the 16 + 1 process during a summit in Belgrade in 2014 between China and 16 East european countries – yet without the participation of the EU itself.
It is clear that China takes cooperation with Europe more as a two-way street now. Europe is not only a major source of its inward investment, but also increasingly a target of its outbound investment flows. A dramatic success has been the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) initiative, which has attracted the most important EU states against US opposition. The AIIB is part of China’s ambitious strategy, known as “one belt, one road”, which is to employ China’s growing economic clout to strengthen ties with the country’s vast neighborhood.
After the 2008 turn, China has also become more protective of its national sovereignty. China has carped at the Western superiority complex and refused to accept criticism of human rights issues, minority policy, and political reform. While these are still issues in Sino-European dialogues, they are much routinized and marginalized.
In fact, bilateral relations are more preoccupied with practical issues of mutual concern: trade imbalance, market entry, and investment and business environments. Furthermore, various types of global issues have been increasingly tabled on the negotiation agenda, for example, climate change, security in the Middle East, and development policy towards Africa.
In sum, interactions are intensifying further, given the common interest in multipolarism and the growing global influence of the two players. There is ample opportunity to cooperate not only for the players’ own sake, but also for the successful establishment of other regional and global affairs. Europe could make an important contribution to the solution of various domestic issues in China, particularly in technological and managerial knowhow on urbanization, the environment, and social policies. China could participate as part of the international effort on the European debt crisis. Together, the two players could join hands in global governance of issues such as international economic governance and global environment risks. However, there are also obstacles and uncertainties. First, China has to address the contradiction between its growing hard power capabilities and its soft power weakness, particularly, in Europe. In a recent survey on the global image of China, the country gets only 41% positive rating in the EU. Besides, Sino-European relations will also depend on domestic developments on both sides. While the EU still has to face its systemic problems in the coming years, China needs to address the bottlenecks of its overall development, and most critically, economic restructuring, social stability, and political reform.
The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or any of its hosts Hertie School of Governance, London School of Economics and Political Science and Stiftung Mercator.
Weiqing Song is Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Macau, Macao SAR, China and a member of The Management Committee of European Union Academic Programme – Macao.