Portugal is now one month into its six-month rotating Presidency of the EU Council, after picking up the baton from Germany in January. At first sight, China plays a minor role in Lisbon’s official Presidency program. It is mentioned only twice in the following context:
- Finalizing Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) and implementing the 2020 EU-China Geographical Indications Agreement as a trade partner.
- Forwarding the EU’s biodiversity agenda as the host of the 2021 UN Conference on Biodiversity.
However, Beijing will be the elephant in the room in many of Lisbon’s foreign policy objectives, among them:
- Reviving transatlantic cooperation with the new US administration.
- Diversifying partnerships in the Indo-Pacific.
- Establishing a high-level EU-India dialogue.
- Strengthening the EU’s partnership with Africa.
MERICS take: A signatory to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, Portugal has worried EU partners in the past over its openness to Chinese capital. State-owned China Three Gorges is the largest shareholder in Portugal’s leading energy company EDP, and Chinese investors have been among the top beneficiaries of the country’s controversial golden visa program - providing foreign investors with resident permits. The EU and the United States are also closely watching China’s participation in the tender for the geostrategically important port of Sines.
Against this background as well as Portugal’s reluctance to clash with China over human rights issues, the Chinese Ambassador to the EU, Zhang Ming has expressed high hopes that the Portugal presidency will provide a “very big boost” to the process of finalizing the CAI. But while the Presidency is committed to making CAI a success despite Washington’s dissatisfaction, Beijing may find Lisbon to be a problematic partner on other fronts.
Portugal’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Augusto Santos Silva has pointed to Beijing as the main target of the EU’s strategic autonomy and the position is evident in the Presidency’s geopolitical goals. The key priority is increasing the EU’s standing in the Indo-Pacific, which translates to limiting economic dependency on China, and countering Beijing’s influence in the region. This stems from plans to promote open trade and the rules-based international order, in line with the Indo-Pacific strategies of France, Germany and the Netherlands.
What to watch: The main event of the Portuguese Presidency is going to be the EU-India Summit gathering of heads of state and government scheduled for May. Lisbon hopes to make the summit a recurring high-level dialogue. Its outcome will have an impact on the EU’s ability to build influence in the region and diversify its relations away from China.