Make the China-E.U. partnership strategic again

China Plus Published: 2018-06-03 21:38:30
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By Yan Shaohua

While the Trump administration is sending shockwaves through the international community, intensive diplomacy is ongoing between China and the European Union, both of which have fallen victim to the recent trade protectionism of the United States. Following the visits by the leaders of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom to China in recent months, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Brussels this week for the eighth round of the China-E.U. Strategic Dialogue, which paves the way for 20th China-E.U. summit scheduled for July. 

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, right, and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi participate in a media conference at EU headquarters in Brussels, Friday, June 1, 2018.[Photo: AP/Virginia Mayo]

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, right, and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi participate in a media conference at EU headquarters in Brussels, Friday, June 1, 2018.[Photo: AP/Virginia Mayo]

Minister Wang's visit took place the day after the United States announced its tariffs on steel and aluminium on the European Union, Canada, and Mexico, dashing European hope that it might avoid the impact of American protectionism. Two days earlier, the Trump administration proposed tariffs on 50 billion U.S. dollars of imports from China, and restrictions on investment by Chinese companies in the United States.

These changing dynamics have created a new situation for this year's Strategic Dialogue between the China and the European Union. In light of the geopolitical turbulence and uncertainty, E.U. High Representative Federica Mogherini highlighted the growing importance of E.U.-China cooperation, not only for the sake of China and Europe, but also for the rest of the world. This sentiment was echoed by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who vowed to deepen strategic communication, trust, and cooperation with the European Union.

The China-EU Comprehensive Strategic Partnership was established in the year of 2003 against the backdrop of America's unilateral intervention in the Iraq War.  Despite the increasing breadth and depth of the strategic partnership over the past decade, there have been suspicions that the partnership is elusive and limited, rather than strategic, given the differences between the European Union and China in some areas. 

Frankly, disagreements do exist between the European Union and China, and they are likely to continue to exist in the future. Yet with the approaching of the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the China-E.U. strategic partnership, there is an opportunity to add new impetus to the partnership and to make it more strategic again. 

Three issues have underlined the importance of China-E.U. cooperation in the context of rising unilateralism and protectionism in the international arena. 

On the economic aspect, China and the European Union have a common interest in preserving the rule-based multilateral trading system with the World Trade Organization at its center. The recent unilateral tariffs and protectionist measures by the United States against China and the European Union are not only harmful to Chinese and European interests, but also detrimental to the authority of the global trading system that is centered on the WTO. As the Trump administration is committed to prioritizing American interests over the preservation of WTO rules, neither China nor the European Union alone are in a position to fight a trade war with the United States. But cooperation between the largest trading nation and the biggest economic bloc should serve to check American trade unilateralism, and bring trade disputes back into the multilateral trading system, the survival of which benefits us all.

In terms of security, China-E.U. cooperation is crucial for the continued implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue. The deal has been put at risk by the Trump administration's decision to withdraw last month. For both the European Union and China, renewed American sanctions against Iran not only harm their investments in that country, but also raise serious security concerns. Should the nuclear deal with Iran collapse, the potential ensuing conflict in the region would worsen the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe. A conflict would also threaten the energy security of China, which is the largest buyer of Iranian crude oil. Therefore, upholding the Iranian nuclear deal is of strategic importance, and joint commitments by the European Union, China, and other global partners is crucial for preserving the deal and weakening the effects of American sanctions.

In terms of sustainable development, which is the third pillar on the E.U.-China Strategic Agenda for Cooperation, the European Union and China have become strategic partners in ensuring the effectiveness and continued implementation of the Paris Agreement. The Trump administration's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement does not call into question the agreement itself; but it has necessitated greater cooperation between the European Union and China, two of the most important players in global climate governance. 

The Trump administration's disregard for the World Trade Organization, the Iranian nuclear deal, and the Paris Agreement are examples of the changing circumstances that the China-E.U. strategic partnership faces. The aim of the China-E.U. strategic partnership is not to counterbalance American interests, nor should it be. But as the United States turns to unilateralism and protectionism, it is time to make the China-E.U. partnership one that is truly strategic again, for the sake of maintaining the multilateral and rule-based global order.  

(Yan Shaohua is assistant professor from Guangdong University of Foreign Studies and research fellow at Guangdong Institute for International Strategies.)

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