Li Keqiang's Europe trip injects stronger vitality into Sino-EU relationship

Published: 2017-06-05 09:09:12
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Li Keqiang's Europe trip injects stronger vitality into Sino-EU relationship

By Rabi Sankar Bosu

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's three-day official Europe tour to Germany and Belgium from May 31 to June 2, 2017 has further accelerated the China- European Union (EU) relationship in times of global uncertainty due to events such as Donald Trump's presidency and Brexit. Plainly speaking, his visit came amid a deepening rift between the US and Europe. After "unsatisfying" G7 talks in Sicily on May 27,2017, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel commented that Europe now has to forge its own path forward, as the United States and Britain were no longer reliable partners on a host of issues from free trade to climate change.

Premier Li Keqiang's trip to Germany and Belgium sends out a strong signal to the world that China is emerging as a new, alternative unifying force, expanding its ever-growing footprint across the globe on everything from new roads and ports to bank loans and energy projects as the Trump administration has stepped back from America's traditional role of dominance on trade and development. 

At the start of his European tour, Premier Li Keqiang had arrived in Berlin, capital of Germany, on May 31 evening where he was greeted by full military honours. He held talks with his German counterpart, Angela Merkel in the morning of June 1. He met with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, before moving on to Brussels. Notably, during talks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Chancellor Merkel has called for closer cooperation with China. And this is due to the US President Trump's unpredictable foreign policy.

The year 2017 marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Germany. Undoubtedly, in recent years, the Sino-German ties have become the most profound and the most reliable nation-to-nation ties among China's relations with European countries. China's ambassador to Germany, Mr. Shi Mingde has rightly called the Sino-German ties a "genuine, win-win, all-around strategic partnership." Surely, China-Germany ties play a leading and stabilizing role in the China-EU relationship when the US is seemingly becoming less and less interested in global governance.

During their meeting, Premier Li Keqiang and Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed economics and trade issues and prepared ground for the G-20 leadership summit to be held on 7–8 July 2017 in Hamburg. Both leaders have vowed to accelerate the synergy of their countries' respective economic strategies so as to further enrich the two countries' cooperation.

According to Chinese Ministry of Commerce, China invested over 2.9 billion U.S. dollars in Germany in 2016, a 258.6-percent increase year-on-year. In the same year, Germany pumped 392 projects in China with an investment volume of 2.71 billion dollars. China remained the biggest investing country in Germany in terms of project numbers in 2016. Chinese firms invested in 281 green field projects or expansion projects in Germany in 2016, an 8% increase from 2015.

Premier Li Keqiang said that China and Germany should continue to promote trade liberalization and the facilitation of China-EU investment agreement synergizing China's "Made in China 2025" strategy in combination with Germany's Industry 4.0 campaign and expand cooperation with Germany under the framework of the G20. Germany has responded positively to the Chinese approach. On June 1, while meeting the press with Premier Li in Berlin, Chancellor Merkel said Germany wishes to see progress in the EU-China trade negotiations. It should be noted that a comprehensive China-EU free trade agreement has been under negotiation since 1984. 

However, the EU continues to deny "Market Economy Status" to China on the basis that China is not yet a proper free market. European companies complain that they cannot easily penetrate the Chinese marketplace. Europe does not want to let relatively cheaper Chinese goods flood European markets at a higher rate than at present either, for fear of undermining local economies. 

During his meeting with Merkel and European leaders, Premier Li persuaded European leaders to accord the status of "market economy" to China, and relax their actions on the dumping of Chinese goods. He also wants the EU to grant a certificate of airworthiness for a China-developed large passenger plane, the C919.

It's really encouraging that the European Union agreed to fulfill its obligations under Article 15 of the Protocol on China's Accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Merkel confirmed that the 28-nation bloc will offer equal treatments to Chinese enterprises under the protocol on China's accession to WTO. It is hoped the EU should abide by WTO regulations and fulfill its legal obligations surrounding China's accession to the WTO without prejudice against China.

The EU is China's largest trading partner and China is the EU's second largest trading partner after the US. This means that each is central to the other's present and future. China's development provides an enormous opportunity for Europe. Bilateral trade value reached 3.6 trillion yuan ($525 billion) in 2016, an increase of 3 percent. The EU has also been increasingly looking to China for support on free trade, after a shift towards protectionism from the US.

The EU supports the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative. The EU leaders said that the 28-nation bloc is willing to further deepen cooperation with China on inter-connectivity and expand two-way investment. Notably, as Li arrived in Germany, the country's biggest lender Deutsche Bank announced US$3 billion worth of investments in cooperation with the China Development Bank as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

To keep fighting against global warming and climate change, Premier Li Keqiang told reporters that China and Germany "are both ready to contribute to stability in the world." He said that fighting against global warming was a "global consensus" and an "international responsibility", sending a clear message to Donald Trump ahead of the US's imminent departure from the historic Paris Agreement which was adopted by 196 parties in Paris in 2015 and it went into effect in November last year. Without mentioning the US specifically, Li said that "China in recent years has stayed true to its commitment" and pointed out that his was one of the first countries to ratify the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

As part of his trip, invited by Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, Premier Li Keqiang arrived in Brussels on June 1, 2017 for attending the 19th China-EU leaders' meeting in Brussels. Upon his arrival, he was welcomed by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk.

This year marks the 46th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Belgium. During their meeting, Premier Li Keqiang and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel held talks and discussed various topics including bilateral ties, economic and trade cooperation as well as international affairs and regional issues of common concern, in Brussels, Belgium, on June 2, 2017. 

Premier Li said that China hopes Belgium could play a positive role to prompt the European Union (EU) to fulfill its obligations under the World Trade Organization (WTO) system. For his part, Michel said that his country is ready to play an active part to push the EU to fulfill its WTO obligations. During his stay in Brussels, Premier Li attended the 12th EU-China Business Summit, co-chaired the 19th China-EU leaders' meeting, and met with Belgium's King Philippe.

During the 19th China-EU leaders' meeting from1-2 June in Brussels, Premier Li Keqiang ,European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker discussed China-EU political and economic relations. They exchanged views on foreign policy and security challenges, including the situation in the Korean Peninsula.  China and the EU reaffirmed their cooperation to tackle climate change and their support to the Paris Agreement.

In his keynote speech at the 12th China-EU Business Summit on June 2, 2017, Premier Li Keqiang reiterated China's support for the European integration process. He said that China is happy to see a Europe that is unified, stable, open and prosperous.  Li said China and the EU are contributors and beneficiaries of world multi-polarization and economic globalization. He urged the two sides to jointly confront the instability of the international situation with a stable bilateral cooperation. 

Premier Li underlined strong support for the 2015 Paris climate change accord from China. It's really encouraging to see that China and Europe have demonstrated solidarity with future generations and responsibility for the whole planet. In a joint statement, China and the EU said climate change and clean energy "will become a main pillar" of their bilateral partnership. Undoubtedly, the China-EU statement is a milestone in the history of global climate diplomacy.

Indeed, China is taking action "steadfastly" to fight against climate change. Recently China has cancelled plans for more than 100 new coal-fired power plants, including several that were already under construction and plans to invest at least $360 billion in green-energy projects by the end of the decade. Its consumption of coal fell in 2016 for a third consecutive year. It could meet its 2030 target a decade early. Earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping defended the Paris climate agreement at the World Economic Forum and called for stronger international cooperation following the election of Donald Trump.

With the Belt and Road initiative, China has already promoted itself as the world's dominant leader of globalization. The main significance of Li Keqiang's just-concluded Europe tour is that China has bolstered a leadership role on climate change after US President Donald Trump announced his nation's withdrawal from the Paris accord. More importantly, Li's trip has signalled that China is assuming a mantle of leadership from free trade and investment to security and climate change, sending a strong message to Trump who is no more friend of the Paris Climate Agreement. As hard as this is to believe, yes, Donald Trump "Makes America small again."

The author is the Secretary of New Horizon Radio Listeners' Club in West Bengal, India.

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