One characteristic trait of modern life is that the key global actors are much more focused on their own domestic problems than on international issues. This propensity for political introspection (some may even call it political autism syndrome) is present, to some extent, in the U.S., Russia, China, and India. However, it is particularly characteristic of the European Union, which currently has to simultaneously deal with Brexit, prepare for the upcoming European Parliament elections, restore financial discipline in the eurozone, and reconcile differing views on migration issues along with many other urgent and extremely important domestic issues. It is clear that Brussels is running out of time to come up with a common pan-European foreign policy.
However, the EU by its very nature is much more dependent on the surrounding world than the U.S., China, or Russia. In this sense, Brussels cannot really afford any manifestations of even selective isolationism. If the EU is not prepared to deal with external forces, then these external forces are quite prepared to deal with the EU. One good example here is China’s increased interest in Europe. In late 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Madrid and Lisbon; rumour has it that he is going to visit Rome and Paris in the near future, and he is speeding up preparations for two multilateral summits in 2019: with the EU as a whole and in the 16+1 format (China plus 16 countries of Central Europe and the Balkans).
“The east wind prevails over the west wind,” Mao Zedong said at a meeting of communist and labour parties in Moscow in November 1957. Sixty years ago, this formula was perceived in Europe as poetic hyperbole. Today, Europe cannot afford to neglect the east wind, which is gaining more strength each year, penetrating all the windows and crevices in the European building, swaying the unstable European structures, slamming doors in the Brussels corridors of power, and forcing European leaders to shiver in the draught and seek reliable shelter.
Experts and politicians in the EU are currently discussing ways to protect Europe from yet another Chinese advance. It is believed that China is going to use the EU’s soft “Mediterranean underbelly” in order to disrupt the already fragile European unity. Beijing apparently is seeking to gain control over European transport and energy infrastructure as well as establish control over the most promising European technology companies. There are fears that China will begin interfering more actively with political processes in European countries.
How justified are these fears? Is Brussels doomed to negotiate with Beijing from a position of weakness? After all, China needs Europe no less than Europe needs China. The EU with its five hundred million consumers remains the world’s largest market. Europe is the ultimate geographic target of China’s flagship Belt and Road project. Europe is the most important source of investment, management models, and social practices for China. Moreover, as Chinese-U.S. trade, economic, and political relations are worsening, the EU has taken on increased importance for China.
China is certainly a difficult and uncompromising partner. Its tactics include the ability to delay negotiations endlessly, return again and again to discussing general provisions, minimise its obligations, leave room for different interpretations of agreements already reached, and so on. The U.S., especially under the current administration, prefers twisting its partners’ arms in a rough and unequivocal manner, whereas China aims to outsit its partners and possibly avoid any unpleasant confrontation. One good example of China’s tactics is the Chinese-EU talks on mutual investments, which have not been particularly successful so far.
Nevertheless, in the current situation Beijing and Brussels are equally interested in attaining a new level of cooperation. Common sense suggests that the parties should demonstrate maximum flexibility, understand each other’s priorities, take into account the partner’s red lines, and be willing to make mutual concessions.
Both parties must resist obvious temptations. China is tempted to take advantage of the EU’s current problems and weaknesses in order to achieve tactical advantages in its relations with Brussels. Europe is tempted to demonstrate, once again, its unfailing loyalty to Washington by mechanistically replicating the U.S. position in trade and economic negotiations with Beijing.
Of course, it is unlikely that all tension in EU-Chinese relations will be eliminated in the coming months or even years. However, even symbolic positive changes would send an important signal to everyone.
This would be a signal to the Donald Trump administration, which needs to realise that it can no longer dictate the rules of the game in the global economy to the rest of the world.
It would also be a signal to Russian leaders, who need to understand that the idea of the contemporary world as an inevitable confrontation between the “aggregate West” and the “aggregate non-West” is not consistent with reality.
This would also be a signal to the entire international community, which very much needs to receive confirmation that the current fragmenting of the world economy and the rise of protectionism and economic nationalism are not a long-term path for development but merely a temporary, and by no means universal, deviation from the irreversible process of globalisation.
Most importantly, successful negotiations with China would send a very important signal to Europe at a time when such a signal is particularly needed: on the eve of the historic European Parliament elections, when the pressure being applied by Eurosceptics and right-wing populists to mainstream parties is growing every day.
The growing east wind means a new challenge for the European project, but it is not the end of the world. As Mao noted, “When the wind of change blows, some people build walls, others build windmills”.