People have begun associating the European Union more with the migration crisis, terrorist attacks and the lackluster economic recovery than as an economic union. Now with the second-largest EU economy, the United Kingdom, voting to leave the union, two years of intricate and intense negotiations lie ahead, posing an existential challenge to the European integration project.
China, as a staunch supporter of a united, prosperous and strong EU, has been closely following the impact of Britain’s exit (or Brexit) on Beijing-Brussels relations and the subsequent global strategic landscape.
China-EU relations have made steady progress toward a partnership for peace, growth and reform, which was agreed during President Xi Jinping’s historic visit to Brussels in 2014. The joint China-EU 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation is an apt example of this partnership. The two sides organize frequent mutual visits, which added up to more than 90 at or above the deputy prime minister level last year. China and the EU have also been each other’s top trading and investment partners for years and have enjoyed dynamic growth in two-way flow of business travelers, tourists and students.
China-EU cooperation helped conclude the historic climate agreement in Paris and the milestone Iranian nuclear deal last year. It has also facilitated global governance reform.
But China-EU ties also face some problems. On the part of the EU, lack of market access and protection of intellectual property rights for its businesses and human rights issues in China are regular subjects of complaints, while China is deeply concerned about the EU’s reluctance to recognize it as a market economy, its unwarranted interference in the South China Sea issue and statements blaming Beijing for the EU steel sector’s ills.
As people debate on the implications of a weaker and more inward-looking EU, the China-EU leaders’ meeting on Tuesday between Premier Li Keqiang and European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in the aftermath of Brexit will be a good opportunity for the two sides to take stock of the recent developments.
Just as China stood with the EU during the debt crisis, it should reaffirm the importance of its relations with the EU and its continued confidence in and support for the European integration project, because the Beijing-Brussels partnership is too important to be allowed to fail and both sides must steady the ship and strengthen their bond.
They should also strengthen the synergy between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the European Investment Plan by identifying major projects under China-EU Connectivity Platform, which can be supported by new financing through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Moreover, the two sides should take forward negotiations on a comprehensive investment agreement and encourage cooperation on production capacity, including in third countries.
China should remind EU leaders to honor their World Trade Organization obligations by abolishing the surrogate country methodology in anti-dumping investigations that they have adopted this year. It should also try to work with the EU to turn the complaints against the overcapacity in its steel sector into a new area of cooperation on industrial upgrading.
The China-EU meeting is a good opportunity for Beijing to remind Brussels of the contradiction in its lectures on democracy and human rights, especially because of Brexit and rising nationalism across Europe.
Given that the meeting coincides with the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the Philippines’ case against China over the South China Sea dispute, Chinese people will read carefully what the EU says.
The terrains for China-EU may not be smooth, yet the way forward is clear. The EU remains a major global player. And a strong and resilient China-EU partnership still has much to offer for world peace, development and prosperity.