Air China’s first direct flight from Beijing to Warsaw, Poland, arrives at Warsaw Chopin Airport in Poland on September 21, 2016 (XINHUA)
China-Europe relations have enjoyed favorable momentum in recent years with a range of cooperation mechanisms being constantly enhanced.
The isolationist policies pushed by U.S. President Donald Trump have also done much to help strengthen the cooperation between China and European countries, both of which are proponents of globalization. However, despite an ongoing strengthening of ties between the two, all is often not what it seems.
In late August, German media revealed that Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, during his address at a gathering of German ambassadors, said: "If we do not succeed, for example, in developing a single strategy toward China, then China will succeed in dividing Europe." The minister meant to underline the importance of EU unity, using China to illustrate that such unity was under threat.
The remark reverberated around China's foreign policy circles, something Gabriel himself did not expect. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that she was "shocked" by Gabriel's remarks, as China has always firmly and unconditionally supported EU integration whether in public or private. Hua asked whether Gabriel could name one country which is more supportive of European integration than China.
Behind the "China dividing Europe" discourse is perhaps the altered European perception of China. EU leaders no longer see China as a subject to lecture and to transform, but as an equal partner/competitor, who has the potential to "change" Europe. Europeans have become increasingly sensitive to the Chinese narratives regarding Europe's integration process and its status in the world.
As a matter of fact, Gabriel's opinion that China will "divide Europe" is nothing new. As early as in 2012, after China and 16 Central and Eastern European countries (CEECs) launched their series of "16+1" annual meetings, EU officials were grumbling in private that China was "dividing Europe."
Two recent cases have added to the flames. The first is related to the South China Sea. In July 2016, an arbitral tribunal in The Hague issued a highly unfavorable award against China regarding the South China Sea dispute. Three days later, the EU issued a general statement on the arbitration outcome, after "Greece and Hungary blocked a more ambitious text," according to the European Council on Foreign Relations. The second is on human rights. In June this year, Greece once again blocked an EU statement which intended to criticize China's human rights record in the Human Rights Council in Geneva. It marked the first time the EU had failed to make such statement at the United Nations' top rights body. The two cases have been widely regarded by EU officials as diplomacy victories of China.
In his State of the Union speech on September 13, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said, "I want our Union to become a stronger global actor. This is why I want member states to look at which foreign policy decisions could be moved from unanimity to qualified majority voting." It is widely suspected that China's ties with Greece and Hungary, two important European participants of China's Belt and Road Initiative, led to such a statement.
Nevertheless, it is unfair to blame Beijing for a divided Europe under the current international political climate.
Beijing's good intention should not be misinterpreted. The "16+1" format was launched by both China and 16 enthusiastic CEECs. These countries were upset by the crisis-ridden EU and were looking for opportunities from the East. When China held the fourth "16+1" summit in Suzhou in November 2015, it invited EU officials to observe all the meetings as part of its efforts to remove the EU's doubts. One year later, during his keynote speech at the sixth China-CEEC Business Forum in Riga, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stressed that the "16+1" cooperation "is an important component of China-Europe cooperation and has injected new vigor into the China-EU comprehensive strategic partnership." Furthermore, Beijing has shunned building similar cooperation platforms with the Nordic or Mediterranean countries, despite many policy advisers having flirted with such an idea. During Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Finland earlier this year, China and Finland stressed in their joint declaration that their partnership is "complementary to the China-EU comprehensive strategic partnership."
Moreover, Europe is divided without China anyway. The North-South divide has been made apparent by the sovereign debt crisis. The West-East divide is illustrated by the refugee crisis. Brexit is a telling example of how the EU area can shrink. And after Brexit, a multi-speed Europe seems inevitable—(multi-speed Europe is the term used to describe a method of differentiated integration whereby common objectives are pursued by a group of EU countries both willing and able to advance). In March, the European Commission issued a white paper on the future of Europe, proposing five scenarios after Brexit. It was the first time that the likelihood of a multi-speed Europe was officially backed and it soon gained currency among big European powers after the white paper was issued.
Tourists gather at the bund area of Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, on June 8, the day a food festival named “A Taste of Central and Eastern European Countries” kicked off (XINHUA)
How can a multi-speed EU not have multi-speed relations with its major partners? Rather than blaming China for dividing Europe, it is more sensible to say that China is acting according to the changing dynamics in Europe. After all, China is not the only country that has built "special relations" with European countries or sub-EU blocs. For example, in August 2013, Nordic leaders from Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland had a working dinner with the then U.S. President Barack Obama in Stockholm, seeking stronger ties. On May 13, 2016, a U.S.-Nordic leaders' summit was held in the White House in Washington, D.C. In June, U.S. President Donald Trump arrived in Warsaw and took part in an assembly of CEECs.
We should look at the bigger picture instead of focusing on the downside. The allegation that "China is dividing Europe" is actually a byproduct of the burgeoning China-EU relationship. The European debt crisis has inadvertently strengthened Sino-European relations, which rebounded quickly from the 2008 clash on Tibet and the Olympic torch relay. Xi's visit to the EU headquarters in 2014 raised the relationship to a higher level. In the last few years, new fields of cooperation that were unimaginable a few years ago have boomed. Infrastructure, green technology, urbanization, and civilization have become new catchwords in Sino-European cooperation. Both sides are also looking forward to closer cooperation on regional hot-button issues and global governance. Diplomats from both sides claim the relations are the "best in recent years."
Compared to other major powers in the world, China thinks very highly of the EU. When China and the EU established their strategic partnership in 2003, China was consi dering pushing for a "multipolar world" together with the EU. Good China-EU relations will be an asset for both sides, as both are moving into an uncertain new world.
The author is an associate researcher with China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations
Copyedited by Francisco Little
Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org