2020 promises to be a critical year in Europe-China relations. Results of a MERICS expert survey, however, indicate that prospects for success look dim, unless European governments can translate last year’s shift in rhetoric into real changes in policy and approach.
Last year marked the end of naïveté on China in Brussels and other European capitals. In addition to labelling China a ‘systemic rival’, the European Commission’s strategic outlook of March 2019 acknowledged China’s rising role as a political and security actor and the implications this has for Europe. This awareness is reflected in the EU’s adoption of an investment screening mechanism and coordination work on 5G risk mitigation. Both will likely affect Chinese actors on the ground, like telecom equipment provider Huawei. Last year, President Ursula von der Leyen also promised to make her Commission ‘geopolitical’ and to better “define relations with an increasingly assertive China”.
All the while, Xi Jinping’s campaign to “tell China’s story right” has prompted Chinese ambassadors in Europe to voice blunt criticism of democratic institutions, targeting individuals and organisations in the media, parliaments, and civil society whose views diverge from Beijing’s official positions. European governments thus face an increasingly delicate balancing act, having to defend their political values against an assertive China while at the same time trying to safeguard potentially lucrative economic cooperation.
Beijing, on its part, has defined Europe as a priority on its diplomatic agenda and has appointed ambassador Wu Hongbo as its first special envoy on European affairs. The Chinese government has also promised to conclude an ambitious Comprehensive Agreement on Investent (CAI) with the EU by the end of the year. Germany would like it to be signed during its presidency of the Council of the EU at a summit in Leizpig in September, which will gather Xi and all 27 EU leaders around the table.
Will Europe and China be able to hail breakthroughs on their stated goals in the year ahead? And which new trends are going to define Sino-European relations going forward? A MERICS forecasting exercise surveyed the opinions of around 150 European China experts and practitioners from think tanks, government, industry and civil society. Their answers give us insights into what Europe should prepare for with regards to China in 2020.
Business as usual is no longer an option in times of systemic rivalry
According to the MERICS survey, political issues will most likely strain Sino-European ties in 2020, adding to long-standing economic issues. Beijing’s politically motivated retaliation against European governments and companies was ranked as the number one factor that might aggravate tensions. This came before restrictions on access to the Chinese market, followed by human rights violations.
Interestingly, while the majority of experts surveyed expect political relations to worsen (17% said they will deteriorate, 42% believe they will deteriorate slightly), 53% of respondents forecast stable economic ties. Are Europeans naïve to think they can have both? The case of Sweden shows that they might be right. So far, a diplomatic row over China’s detention of Chinese-born Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai has not affected trade and investment ties. This has led Swedish experts to talk about “hot economics, cold politics” in bilateral relations. If survey respondents are right, this might become a defining trend in European countries’ relations with China more broadly.