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Energy & Economics
EURO vs. Yuan. European and Chinese flags

Overcoming an EU-China trade and trust deficit

by Shairee Malhotra

Beijing seeks normalisation of ties with Europe; however, for Brussels, reconciliation will be conditional on Beijing’s willingness to address fundamental divergences On 7-8 December, European Commission President von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel will be in Beijing for the 24th European Union (EU)-China summit, but the first in-person one in four years, taking place at a critical juncture in EU-China ties. At the previous EU-China virtual summit in April 2022, the Ukraine conflict was the primary talking point for the Europeans and other issues such as climate and economics were relegated to the back burner. This time, the focus is likely to be economics. A relatively constructive meeting between United States (US) President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on 15 November, which led to the resumption of US-China high-level military dialogue and Xi’s assurances on Taiwan, has contributed to paving the way for the EU to focus on ironing out economic irritants. Deficits, dependencies and de-risking With daily EU-China trade amounting to 2.2 billion euros, the EU is concerned about its widening goods trade deficit with China—400 billion euros in 2022—referred to by EU Ambassador to China, Jorge Toledo, as the “highest in the history of mankind”. In the context of China’s restrictive environment for foreign companies, the EU is keen for a level playing field and greater reciprocity in trade. Another major area of contention is Chinese overcapacity through subsidies in key industrial export sectors such as electric vehicles (EVs) that are undermining European automotive industries. The European Commission has already launched a probe for the EVs sector and is now considering other major sectors including wind energy and medical devices. In addition, Europe is heavily dependent on critical raw materials such as lithium and gallium from China, which are intrinsic to its green transition. While over 90 percent of the EU’s supply of raw materials comes from China, the EU aims to address this dependency through its Critical Raw Materials Act. Factors such as Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, human rights violations in Xinjiang, and pandemic-era supply chain disruptions have deteriorated European perceptions of China. The downswing in EU-China ties was further accentuated by Beijing’s posture in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the failure of European leaders to coax China to positively use its influence with the EU’s most immediate security threat, Moscow. Thus, a major trust deficit has accompanied the trade deficit. On 6 November, only a month before the summit, von der Leyen in her speech warned against “China’s changing global posture” with its “strong push to make China less dependent on the world and the world more dependent on China”. While acknowledging China as Europe’s most important trading partner, she emphasised the “explicit element of rivalry” in the relationship. Another dialogue of the deaf? The EU and its member states are recalibrating their China policies, with countries such as Germany even releasing China-specific documents outlining their approach. The EU’s “de-risking” strategy aims to reduce dependencies in critical sectors, and through an expansion of its policy toolbox, the Union is implementing a range of measures including greater scrutiny of inbound-outbound foreign investments, anti-coercion instruments, and export controls for dual-purpose technologies. In this context of an evolving European approach, the upcoming summit is a much-anticipated one for EU-China watchers. Despite the strain in relations, high-level diplomatic exchanges have continued in full swing, many of which, such as von der Leyen’s visit to China in April, EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis’s visit in September, and EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell’s visit in October were conducted in preparation for this summit. A sluggish Chinese economy gives Europe room to wield its economic leverage. However, grey areas in Europe’s China policy remain, especially with regard to the implementation of measures and the need for more effective coordination, often compromised by a lack of unity amongst member states and tendencies of leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to prioritise business interests over all else. Thus, straddling the fine balance between economic opportunities and security risks will continue to be a test for how Europe manages its interdependence with the lucrative Chinese market. Previous EU-China summits have not produced a joint statement, and according to sources, this summit is unlikely to produce one as well. Yet it is an opportunity for the EU to put forward unresolved concerns and forge some common ground. Without concrete deliverables, the upcoming summit risks being another “dialogue of the deaf” as Borrell famously described the previous one. Amidst renewed transatlantic solidarity, Beijing’s rhetoric indicates that it seeks normalisation of ties with Europe and a more independent European policy towards China away from Washington’s influence. Yet for Brussels, reconciliation will be conditional on Beijing’s willingness to address fundamental divergences.

Diplomacy
Rock Islands on the Pacific Ocean

China is playing the long game in the Pacific. Here’s why its efforts are beginning to pay off

by Graeme Smith

A week-long trip to Beijing by the Pacific’s most flamboyant statesman Manasseh Sogavare, was always going to cause concern in Canberra. The substance of the visit was as expected. The relationship between China and the Solomon Islands was upgraded to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” (on par with Papua New Guinea, the first Pacific nation to sign up to the Belt and Road Initiative). Nine agreements were also signed covering everything from civil aviation and infrastructure to fisheries and tourism. The Chinese premier, Li Qiang, who inked the deals with Sogavare, made a point of not mentioning the controversial policing cooperation agreement, the draft of which was leaked more than a year ago to New Zealand academic Anna Powles. Despite repeated calls from Australia and New Zealand to release the text of the policing agreement, there is no indication the Chinese or the Solomon Islands leadership will do so. There were also moments of theatre in Sogavare’s trip. The prime minister declared “I’m back home” when he arrived in Beijing in a clip posted by China Global Television Network. He then said in a longer interview on the same network that his nation had been “on the wrong side of history” for the 36 years it recognised Taiwan instead of the People’s Republic of China, and lauded President Xi Jinping as a “great man”. Sogavare saved his biggest serve for his return to the Solomon Islands, though. He accused Australia and New Zealand of withdrawing crucial budget support and hinted he would look to China to fulfil his ambitions to establish an armed forces, should Australia be unwilling to help.China’s slow start in the PacificSome key questions have been overlooked this week in the pantomime about what Australia should or shouldn’t do to shore up its relationship with an important Pacific partner. (We could start by accepting that Sogavare will never love us, and avoid getting into an arms race in the Solomon Islands with China.) What’s been somewhat lost, though, is how China has made inroads so quickly in a region that it still officially classifies as “peripheral”. China has certainly had to work harder to gain a foothold in the region. Relative to other regions, it has a lack of historical state ties with the Pacific. In Africa and Southeast Asia, China can draw on memories of shared anti-colonial struggles and aid projects like the Tanzam railway. In the Pacific, the Chinese Communist Party is a latecomer. Also holding it back is the remoteness and small population of the region. This has not made the Pacific a good fit for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has flourished in countries with rapid transport and communication links, substantial Chinese diasporas and leaders who are easily reached. Most of China’s own Pacific experts were baffled when the region was belatedly included in the project. Yet despite these obstacles, it’s clear the Chinese state’s approach in the Pacific has shifted, most remarkably in its diplomacy and the role state-linked companies are expected to play. Diplomats with serious intent China’s wolf warrior diplomacy has received plenty of attention, but the picture in the Pacific is less straightforward. The recently appointed special envoy to the Pacific, Qian Bo, undoubtedly styles himself as a wolf warrior. Under his tenure as Fijian ambassador, a Taiwanese representative was assaulted by Chinese diplomats for the crime of displaying a Taiwanese flag cake. Yet, other appointments suggest China is appointing higher-calibre diplomats to the region. These include Li Ming, the current ambassador to the Solomon Islands, and Xue Bing, the former ambassador to Papua New Guinea who now holds the challenging post of special envoy to the Horn of Africa. With experience in the region and good language skills, these diplomats have been more able to engage with Pacific communities than their predecessors, who largely focused on sending good news back to Beijing. More serious representatives suggest more serious intent.Chinese companies exerting influence, tooChina’s state-linked companies remain the driving force behind China’s engagement with the Pacific. Unlike the embassies, they are well-resourced and have skin in the game. Many company men (in construction, where Chinese companies dominate, they’re mostly men) are based in the region for decades, developing a deep understanding of how to win projects and influence political elites. Failed projects generate plenty of headlines, but many companies – such as COVEC PNG and China Railway First Group – are effective operators. They are building infrastructure cheaply in the Pacific and winning the favour of multilateral donors, particularly the Asian Development Bank. For larger state-linked companies, like China Harbor Engineering Company and the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), the geopolitical game has shifted. In the past, they could rely on their standing within the Chinese political system (their parent companies often outrank the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to resist pressure to act on behalf of state. Now, they are expected to carry geopolitical water for Beijing. Often this can benefit the companies. For instance, when CCECC lobbied the Solomon Islands leadership to switch their allegiance from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China, it helped the company when it came to bidding for projects for the Pacific Games in Honiara. The leaders of these companies realise it can harm their image when they are seen as Beijing’s pawns. Yet, the companies, diplomats and Pacific leaders who choose Beijing’s embrace know times have changed. China is now a serious player in the region with a development philosophy to sell. It’s no longer enough to read Beijing’s talking points. You have to look like you mean it.