Chinese President Xi Jinping at a video meeting with EU leaders in Beijing on June 22 (XINHUA)
Unlike in previous years, because of the unique situation with the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic at the moment, the annual China-European Union (EU) leaders' meeting was held virtually on June 22. President of the European Council Charles Michel and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, accompanied by High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, held the meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang followed by exchanges with Chinese President Xi Jinping online.
Impact from COVID-19
COVID-19 has changed the international landscape, not just impacting on people's movements and actions. Europe has had a torrid time. Fatalities were high in Italy and Spain. The UK, still engaged in its negotiations to leave the common market with or without a deal by the end of the year, performed the worst—late in its measures to lock down society, and late in most of its responses since, with fatalities far ahead of France or Germany. No one has emerged unscathed.
The public health issues seem to be now coming under control. Countries in the EU are emerging from the emergency phase. Now they are dealing with the economic fallout. That overshadows everything else. All of Europe has experienced contraction. The EU has already started to put in place measures to try to tackle this. They look likely to exceed those which were used to deal with the great financial crisis 12 years before.
The primacy of the economy and the need to preserve jobs puts the EU and Chinese leadership on the same page, whatever differences they have. In the delayed session of the National People's Congress, China's top legislature, in May, the same set of issues were focused on, albeit in a different context—how to restore at least some level of growth and how to create jobs. The China-EU leaders' meeting had this at the head of its agenda, even if it was not conveyed so blatantly in the talks.
The Europeans were keen to express their difference in values. This is in some way to ensure that they signal to the U.S. that they remain close to it, even as they have to focus more on their own self-interest. COVID-19 has also weighed heavy on the world's biggest economy across the Atlantic, causing mass loss of jobs, and real worries about the country even tipping into recession. Before COVID-19, U.S. growth was strong, and looked resilient. Now it looks far more fragile, despite relatively good job creation pickup in May to June.
This situation means that the quandary that the EU has always had—how to balance its clear but very different interests between China and the U.S.—has just got much sharper. This is a problem across the world from the Pacific to Latin America—how to deal with the two most important powers in the world at a time when they are undergoing increasing tensions and deeper conflicts with each other. In the past, the EU at least had some legitimate common space—looking for economic benefit, working on common issues like climate change and sustainability, and simply recognizing on some things they need to agree to disagree. But these days, the responses are put under greater scrutiny by a U.S. demanding loyalty and adherence to it, even in the commercial realm, and one where the thinking on climate change and a number of other issues is no longer as easily aligned with the EU as it once was, and a China showing frustration at the way what it regards as its international space being impeded illegitimately by a U.S. that makes demands on others, but does not seem to impose any restraint on itself.
Neutrality is no longer so easy for the EU, caught between these two. That perhaps explains the relative brevity of the statements by the EU leadership. As President Von der Leyen stated,"The COVID-19 pandemic and a number of major bilateral and multilateral challenges show clearly the EU-China partnership is crucial, be it in terms of trade, climate, technology, and the defense of multilateralism. But for our relations to develop further, they must become more rules-based and reciprocal, in order to achieve a real level playing field." This is a fair, and concise statement of where the EU's energies are now going to be focused—how to somehow preserve its place in being able to look to the U.S. for some things, and China for others. At the moment it is living in a period of very severe tension.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang holds the 22nd China-European Union leaders' meeting with President of the European Council Charles Michel and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen via video link in Beijing on June 22 (XINHUA)
Factors at play
There are two things that will possibly change the general situation the EU is in. One is that the economies of its member states improve more quickly than people expect, and that the COVID-19 crisis offers at least some strategic clarity arising from the challenges it has brought. The meeting's most positive language was about the level of joint research to combat the pandemic. Universities and research institutes across both places now have a common purpose, and are collaborating in new ways. This might create a level of trust and unified purpose which has until now been more abstract. If they are able to jointly create a vaccine for the virus, nothing would have greater symbolic value. Here is why the EU and China can, and must work together, because deep down there are some things where their interests are absolutely aligned.
The other is what happens in the U.S. in the presidential election in November. Joe Biden, the Democrat candidate, is sitting in front of the incumbent Donald Trump in the polls. Trump is regarded as having handled not just the pandemic in the U.S., but the fallout from the Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman badly. Here too, economy will matter a lot.
If some positive growth is restored by the time of the election, Trump can claim a kind of victory. Were Biden to be the victor, he is expected to return to a more positive multilateralism and less relentless focus on Trump's notion of U.S. interests at the expense of all else—including the U.S. Despite this, Biden will probably maintain the same attitude toward China, but go about it in a different way. It is likely his administration, if elected, will work with the EU differently, and be better able to listen to it.
No matter how these two issues play out, one thing that the China-EU leaders' meeting did make clear was the stronger desire for reciprocity. This is something that has been an important part of EU language in its key strategic documents for a number of years. Many things, even in the tight strategic position the EU is in, can be explained or defended if European leaders can point to clear gains. The trading, investment and research relationship with China is still not at the level where this is easy to do. The unique thing about this moment is that China may well be in a position to do far more now, and create much more goodwill, in Europe than ever before if its economy does improve more quickly. The question is whether it feels it is in a position to make this move. If it does, it could prove a very wise investment.
The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and director of the Lau China Institute at King's College London
(Printed Edition Title: On the Same Page)
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