The current world order produces a sentiment of anxiety and fear withinthe international community. China’s development is often interpreted in negative terms by the West and this evaluation shapes antagonistic tendencies. Sino-European relations have been partly affected by this atmosphere. Although last year ended with theconclusion in principle of negotiations for a comprehensive agreement on investmentbetween China and the EU, tensions have not been uncommon in the first months of 2021.
The decision of the European Parliament in May to freeze the ratification of the dealinfluences the usual kinetic energy of the bilateral partnership. The EU hadalready imposed sanctions on China for alleged human rights abuses in XinjiangUygur Autonomous Region, to which the Chinese Government fiercely responded. The European Parliament now hopes that China will lift its own sanctions as a goodwill gesture. But State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi clarified in a recent speech at a virtual session of the Munich Security Conference that it is not acceptableforsome in the EU to turn trade issues into political ones. Encouragingpolitical confrontation and economic decoupling between the two sides does not serve Europe's interests and will not go very far, Wang added.
The nature of the sanctions is mainly symbolic. What matters more is the existing misunderstanding in Sino-European relations. The EU believes that it can act as a normative power in international relations and is eager to shape policies in accordance with what it perceives as ideal and close toits values. China, for its part, rejects concepts such as "systemic rivalry"and envisages a world where it ought to be respected by others for what it has accomplished with its own governance model. Its evolution as the second biggest economy in the world and its alleviation of absolute poverty are characteristic of these achievements. China thus does not tolerate finger-pointing.
What is crucial is the symbiosis of different countries in a world destined for peace and prosperity. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed serious weaknesses in the global capacity to respond to a common invisible enemy. The EU, where GDP per capita is much higher than in China, found it hard to prevent a second waveof infection,and the pace of its vaccinations has been slowerin comparison to other Western countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. The delayed return to normalcy maximizes economic losses for companies and individuals and ushers in a new period of uncertainty. In this respect, China’s progress is confirmed by statistics, namely the total number of COVID-19 deaths, its economic performance as the only major economy to achieve positivegrowth in 2020 and the continuous increase in vaccination doses it administers.
The COVID-19 experience is edifying. International cooperation is necessary in order to guarantee that a similar crisis will never be repeated. At the same time, stable economic recovery from the ongoing pandemic should not be taken for granted. Initial growth rates and enthusiasm will naturally replace stagnation and contraction. But the main objective is to add permanent features to the process.
The EU has set up an ambitious recovery plan to help its member states overcome the crisis. Other investment opportunities, for instance in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative, are not excluded and have the potential of playing a useful, complementary role. In today’s world the engine of growth is transnational. It is positive that Chinese and European banking institutions have already started to parallelize their priorities. The concept of green financing is promising.Social imbalances are yet to be addressed in the post-COVID-19 world. The discussion goes beyond the wellbeing of people in Europe and China to other continents such as Africa. In meeting sustainable development goals, broader synergies are a prerequisite. In recent years, the EU has witnessed the arrival of numerous refugees, including from Africa. Climate change and social instability will perhaps add to the causes of regional conflict after the pandemic by subsequently creating new waves of refugees. If the roots of the problem are not eliminated, mitigation measures alone--as the EU carried out in response to the Syrian civil war--will not suffice.
The EU has demonstrated a remarkable degree of resilience and coherence during its debt crisis and in its handling of Brexit. At present, it is striving to see light at the end of tunnel after the pandemic and strengthen its position in a multilateral world order. Disagreements with China are nothing new and can occasionally intensify during turbulent times. When the dust settles, prudent politicians are expected to offer foresight amid uncertainty.
The author is EU-China Program director at the Centre International de Formation Européenne
(Print Edition Title: Sino-European Cooperation Matters)
Copyedited by G.P. Wilson
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