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EU-China: The New Semantics of the Summit

EU-China: The New Semantics of the Summit
 François Godement
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - U.S. and Asia

One has to fight the feeling of disappointment at the outcome of the EU-China summit of April 9. There are genuine advances in the joint statement that was finally agreed in the wee hours. A comprehensive investment agreement by 2020 or earlier; a promised quick wrap-up of the treaty on geographical indications (100 protected origins that would benefit both European and Chinese agriculture); a commitment by China to discuss industrial subsidies in the context of a WTO reform, to improve its offer on a WTO public procurement agreement, and to oppose forced technology transfer. In fact, the statement holds the prospect of results on a host of other, more technical, agreements. It also lists the foreign policy issues on which both parties seem to agree in principle. By inference, and along with six mentions of "international law" and three of "multilateralism", the statement would seem to answer some of the European concerns voiced in the tense weeks after the EU’s March 12 communication branding China as a "systemic rival".
So why is it that we experience a feeling of déjà vu and at least partial let down? First of all, because, in the tradition of China’s public diplomacy, some statements simply do not ring true. "The EU and China reaffirm that all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated". Beyond the sad howl of laughter that this claim will bring, there is papering over a fundamental divergence: China emphasizes social and economic rights within the context of government action, and certainly not the rights of the individual. In fact, the claim is followed by a telling qualification: cooperation will happen "in particular in UN fora": that is where China has been most successful at engineering coalitions to fight political human rights. This is certainly not enough of a criterium, as the EU has demanded for the first time, to evaluate the "sincerity" of China. To be fair, the EU is also emphasizing lists of detainees.

The claim is followed by a telling qualification: cooperation will happen "in particular in UN fora": that is where China has been most successful at engineering coalitions to fight political human rights.

Another case concerns maritime issues: China, the EU and its member states "respect the maritime order based on international law and uphold freedoms of navigation and overflight enjoyed by all states in accordance with international law". This is in marked retreat to the declaration of G7 foreign affairs ministers adopted only 2 days before the summit with China. On Asia-Europe connectivity (e.g. Silk Road and European funds), cooperation will "comply with established international norms and standards, as well as the law of the countries benefitting from the projects, while taking into account their policies and individual situations". Which will it be ? 

As per previous joint statements, this 2019 text sometimes falls back on the obvious. Imagine for a second if the two parties had declared that they did not "support the peaceful settlement of regional disputes and conflicts through dialogue and consultation"… 

Cynics will argue that the text tries to achieve too much, and that this is probably a measure of the frustration expressed by the European side from previous exercises and the lack of delivery by China. The words "commit", "committed" or "commitment" appeared 34 times in the 2018 joint statement. They still figure 23 times in the new statement. Who is fooling whom? Either a revolution is under way from the Chinese perspective on Europe, or many of these "commitments" are neither spelled out, nor timed, and certainly not sanctioned. 

The Europeans are no fools, however, and the side declarations of Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk show awareness of the risks.

Juncker: "we are ready to work together and at the same time be more ambitious in standing up for our interests and values".
At the same time…
Donald Tusk : "We managed to agree a joint statement" (sic).

Both emphasized the statement was based on "reciprocity". The word never appears in the actual text, where it is the Chinese formulations of "mutual respect" and "mutual benefit" that prevail. Juncker also mentions the "rules-based global order", and adds cryptically: "you can express it in a different way". This is precisely because China refused to repeat a commitment to the "rules-based international order", which it had conceded in 2018.

The joint statement includes a clear sign of the new European cautiousness. The Europeans have successfully inserted in the joint statement a reviewing mechanism which is strongly stated, if not entirely spelled out : "both sides agree to establish a political mechanism to continuously monitor the progress in the negotiations and to report to leaders by the end of the year on the progress made". There will be "stock-taking" at the next EU-China summit. China commits to "work forward in an expeditious manner" : an unusual tone. 

There will be "stock-taking" at the next EU-China summit. China commits to "work forward in an expeditious manner" : an unusual tone.

In short, the EU is holding China to quick delivery on several key items, and in two cases with a precise deadline. But it is not holding China’s feet to the fire, as the Trump administration has done with increased tariffs on Chinese imports. In July 2018, China’s primary aim was to enlist Europe’s neutrality or even its cooperation in countering the Trump administration’s offensive. In April 2019, it still needs a joint statement badly enough to concede these timed pledges. There is no immediate deliverable, however. In the coming months, the EU will find itself absorbed by several problems – such as the continuing Brexit saga ; European elections and the designation of a new Commission ; possibly, other trade tensions with the United States which could hinder coordination on common goals regarding China. Whatever its proclamations of support for "European integration", China is continuing its direct appeal to member states : it has collected Portugal, Italy and even Luxembourg as participants to the Belt & Road Initiative ; the 16 + 1 are now 17 + 1, with the inclusion of Greece. The implementation of the new investment screening rules by the EU will also be a test of the cohesion of the member states, with 5G deployment and Huawei’s role as a case of both substance and symbol. 

All of this must figure also in Chinese calculations about the European Union’s capacity to follow through. Once more, China has made promises, and the EU has quite explicitly said it did not agree with the methods employed by the United States, if it often agreed with the analysis that justified with these methods. The temptation will be to declare victory on the slightest concessions by Beijing. If not, and as is the case with the terms for Brexit, this will turn into a test of the EU’s cohesion.


Copyright : JOHN THYS / AFP

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