In the current world settlement, the three great political and economic powers appear to be the United States, Europe and China.
In particular, China is increasingly becoming a major player in the global scenario, securing an extensive presence in almost every part of the world.
The European Union and China have always maintained between them a relation that intended to be as cooperative as possible.
The history of EU-China relations consists of several phases, which it is worthwhile to analyze in order to understand how the 2021 strategy was arrived at and how a change of pace in this context became necessary.
In 1995, the human rights dialogue between the European Union and China was initiated. The dialogue was intended to be constructive and nonconfrontational in order to foster respect for and promotion of human rights in China. The European Union’s stated goal was to push the Chinese government to make efforts to comply with its international human rights obligations. The human rights dialogue also aimed to cover salient issues in the Chinese situation, including:
– Death penalty
– Re-education through labor, practice abolished in 2014
– Civil liberties
In 2003, the EU and China adopted a new partnership strategy, which included six priorities, including sharing responsibility for promoting global governance, supporting China’s transition to an open society based on the rule of law and respect for human rights, and promoting China’s economic openness internally and externally.
To this end, a policy paper was produced that contained concrete proposals for strengthening relations between Europe and China especially in key areas such as economics and trade, as well as addressing the internal reform process in China. Among these concrete proposals were those pertaining to the need to make the dialogue on human rights more effective and to support China’s internal reform process by strengthening the existing dialogue on environment, energy, science and technology, and information society by expanding it also or in other fields, such as in the field of industrial policy and education.
A further step forward in Euro-Chinese relations was achieved in 2013 with the EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation, which was the main outcome of the 16th China-Eu summit. China and the European Union announced a cooperation plan and engaged in a dialogue on an investment protocol. The meeting also was of particular importance because it also marked the 10th anniversary of Europe’s Strategic Partnership with China. The new plan established a new and stronger cooperation between the two sides in terms of industry, taking into account the increasingly close interdependence the two economies were experiencing.
The EU and China are two of the world’s largest trade players, with China being the EU’s second largest trading partner after the United States while the EU figures as China’s largest trading partner. Against this backdrop, therefore, it is crucial for the EU to establish trade relations with China aimed at ensuring mutual convenience in trade, which also includes a willingness to trade fairly, respect for the same rights and environmental standards.
This is why a new strategy between the EU and China was arrived in 2020-2021, including through the so-called CAI, Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, in order to make the two economies more interdependent and strengthen economic cooperation. The agreement was crucial from a trade point of view: in fact, the agreement guarantees European investors access to various sectors of the Chinese market, from telecommunications to finance and so on. The agreement was very important for European investors as it made the market access conditions for European companies clear and independent of Chinese policies and also allowed the EU to use the dispute settlement mechanism in case of breach of commitments. The EU also negotiated the elimination of restrictions that hinder the activities of European companies in China, securing an ambitious agreement. Chinese and European investors were thus assured fair treatment, without discriminatory conditions and with reciprocity between investors.
On the other hand, the agreement also had a fundamental political significance. Indeed, as part of the negotiation of the CAI, there was much talk about respect for human rights-particularly against forced labor-and provisions to protect the environment and combat climate change. The European Parliament itself voted for a resolution precisely to ensure that the agreement included adequate commitments in this regard. Like all of the European Union’s most recent trade agreements, the CAI includes provisions on labor standards, as well as on the environment and climate. Indeed, the principles of sustainable development are among the common values on which the CAI is based.
In general, the relationship between the European Union has always been characterized by strong interconnectedness from the economic and trade point of view, both parties being relevant on the world stage and both having a need for dialogue with each other. Interestingly, however, agreements between China and the European Union have always had a political substratum. In fact, in all the interlocutions, reference has always also been made to commitments to be made on human rights, the development of freedom and democracy, and environmental issues.
Which, on closer inspection, is of fundamental importance in achieving those ambitious goals that Europe sets for itself on precisely these issues.
However, European Union does not always effectively ensure China’s compliance. And that is why just recently the need for a step change in relations with the East has emerged.
This need, of course, has also arisen from the fact that the world has changed drastically in the past four years, starting precisely with an event that had its central focus precisely in China. Indeed, Covid-19 literally changed the world as we knew it. The health crisis had enormous consequences in the economic, social, and development aspects, and even today all these issues are still not resolved.
The recent Ukraine crisis has also destabilized the world order. And the fact that China continues to cooperate and dialogue with Russia does not make interlocutions between the Republic of China and the European Union at all easy.
And the recent diplomatic mission of European Commission President Ursula Von der Layen and French President Emmanuel Macron to Beijing certainly does not seem to have helped Europe, but in many respects Xi Jinping appears favored. For these reasons, last April 18 the European Parliament discussed the need to adopt a new strategy toward China, in light of the new global status quo and the increasingly central role of China, which is becoming more and more independent, but at the same time creating greater dependence on itself for other realities. And related to this sector, last September 2023 the European Parliament already said that the EU needs to break away from this dependency that has built up over the years.
On that occasion, MEP Hermann Tertsch said the following: “Europe cannot stop trade with China, but it must reverse most of the relocations that have already taken place and stop any plans for further relocations.” The ECR shadow rapporteur also pointed out China’s presence in different parts of the world, such as in Africa, Central America and Asia, as well as in Europe itself, “buying a lot of infrastructure, ports and rail networks.”
This is precisely why “Europe cannot simply stop trade with China, and the consequences of the recent changes put in place by Merkel, Macron and von der Leyen must be reversed.”
At the end of the debate, the EU Parliament decided to adopt a renewed, comprehensive and coherent EU-China strategy, taking into account the challenges originating from China’s rise as a global actor alongside its increasingly oppressive domestic policies and assertive foreign policy.
Therefore, with this new strategy the EU must be bolder and more assertive, when necessary, in the use of its trade security instruments and examine the need to field new instruments to see if there are loopholes that allow for inappropriate spill-overs, and in the coming months it will develop a new economic security strategy. This must necessarily also be followed by a strong EU policy to be implemented with strong cooperation of member states and a willingness to avoid divisions. “The time has come to show our collective will, proving that our unity strengthens us,” said Ursula Von der Layen. From now on, we will know whether this strategy will be applied or if they will remain only words.