Is there any EU-China strategic partnership? Is something going to change with the new Chinese leadership? Can EU play any role in G-2 world? What should the EU do in case of Far East tensions? One of the most famous European experts on China answers some of the major questions concerning China from European perspective.
Jonathan Holslag is a research fellow at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies (BICCS). His two latest books, China and India: Prospects for Peace and China: Trapped Giant, were widely reviewed and discussed. Jonathan’s papers were published in journals like International Spectator, The Washington Quarterly, Journal of Strategic Studies, the Journal of Common Market Studies, Journal of Contemporary China and others. Shorter pieces of his hand appeared in news outlets like The Financial Times, The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, , The Foreign Policy, The Harvard International Review, The EU Observer and others.
The EU-China relations have been called a strategic partnership. What is the basis of these relations?
First of all, I think we don’t really have a strategic partnership. For me EU-China relations, if anything, are technocratic relations. If you look at the origins, it has been very much created by commercial agendas, investment interest and reverse expectations of China that we want to share the technological know-how. That has been the main trust behind the broadening the relations. Initially, there was also some interest in collaborating in emerging the multipolar world order, especially around the Iraq war in 2003. China was quite supportive of the emergence of Europe as a sort of potential counterweight to the US. Nowadays I think that both of those pillars of the relationship are under distress. First and foremost the economic expectations vis-à-vis China are turning into fear of China’s competition, fear of unfair government intervention in economic affairs, fear that China is accelerating deindustrialization of Europe and also, and that is the key, that lot of the companies who went to China have difficulties sustaining their activities and profits and they are being discriminated by the Chinese government. When we look at the sort of geopolitical aspects, the prospects of the multipolar order, China now has really given up to believe that Europe is ever going to emerge as a solid global player, it reckons that the Lisbon reform treaty hasn’t really led to the major change in external relations and that there are still the big three member states running the show whenever it comes to critical security challenges. So I think on that level at this moment we really face a challenge of turning this technocratic relationship into a fully pledged strategic partnership. It is vital that we do so, it is the only way to avoid the spiral of the economic conflict that might lead to a trade war. And that is also the only way for us to avoid starting to consider each other’s influence as sort of detrimental evolution and a part of the zero sum game.
Do you see any changes in the relations coming from the change in leadership in China and is there any potential in environmental cooperation in the future?
We got a lot of interest from Li Keqiang and the people around Li Keqiang for cooperation in organization of public transport. There it was really the Chinese who came to us to ask for support and to share the experience. It shows there are still opportunities for cementing the relations and strengthening ties. The main difference I think will be that we can no longer rely on the role of the Chinese premier that is acting as a supporter of the partnership with the EU. It remains to be seen whether Li Keqiang is going to have the same eagerness to push for the EU-China relations. There might be more inclination to work with the member states rather than on the European level. There is among new leaders and the new generation of the diplomats quite some skepticism vis-à-vis the EU as a whole.
The Chinese are not that enthusiastic towards the EU as towards the US. What is the role of the European soft power in China? Does the European human rights policy play any role here and what can be done to improve the European image in China?
Both the US and the EU emphasize in a similar way the importance of human rights, we all pay attention to issues like Tibet, faith of dissidents and so on. I think the Americans go even further in that than we do. When it comes to the soft power, I think that a lot of the Chinese still feel somewhat attracted by the resilience of power of the US, its power to innovate and its power to lead. That for me illustrates that the soft power ultimately links upon the hard power, economic capabilities and just the capacity to run the show. But with regard to the EU, nevertheless, we have some soft power too, especially in terms of welfare state we used to be quite a role model to many Chinese. There were many delegations coming to us to study how we organize pensions, health care or education. When it comes to the environment, I think we set the bar and China, with its own domestic needs, isn’t of course always following our agenda, but I think this is really an issue where Europe shows the way. And that happens in lots of other issues: for example quality standards, food products, electronic products; the Chinese have also learnt a lot from our experiences and have adopted many of our standards. Now there is a big difference between influencing and getting something for that in return and that is problem with the EU. We often set good examples but we are not able to capitalize on it economically and politically. With regard to the future I think it will be more difficult to wield some soft power. In many ways, we are in a perception cascade. China questions us as a diplomatic actor, questions us as a leading economic player, fears that we are getting more protectionist and then also asks, well, can you afford the welfare state? They think it is great what we have achieved but they ask if it is still viable economically and financially.
Do you see any chance that the EU would form a third pole to the forming G-2 and that it would eventually reach a similar place in Chinese perception as the US and eventually lead to a G-3 even in the global level?
After all, I believe that the EU will come stronger out of this crisis and that it will still be able to address a lot of skepticism we are facing in Asia. But the transition is going to be difficult as Europe will be confronted with a lot of economic pressure from both China and the US. We have of course the US that aim at reindustrialization and cutting the deficit, they aim at de-evaluation of the US dollar and on the other hand the Chinese Yuan is still pegged to it. So you have basically a, financially and monetary at least, G-2 in action working against the EU and that’s something that we have to deal with and be careful about. But ultimately I believe that G-2, i.e. US-China relations will continue to be led by lot of distrust, lots of tensions and also there will be many constrains because of the domestic challenges. That leads me to the conclusion that even though we are in the same boat facing interlinked adjustment problems and economic challenges, it often proves to be very hard to turn it into an opportunity for cooperation and coordination. It is true for the EU – China relations but also for the US – China relations.
What do you think would be the EU reaction in case of a rise of the tensions between China and one of its neighboring countries backed by the US, such as Japan, or Taiwan?
In the first place it is in the US interest to avoid these tensions and the Americans are really walking the tightrope here and often have been frustrated because their allies went a bit too far. For the EU part I think we have to act even more carefully because we are not an insolent power and we face a lot of other security challenges in our immediate backyard, it is the belt of uncertainty that stretches from the Gibraltar through the Middle East all the way to the Baltic. And that to me continues to be the foremost concern. And also it continues to be the region through which we could exalt the influence on the emerging powers because that’s where they are the weakest.
Would EU take any side in any possible rising of tensions in the Far East?
I think we should avoid siding in any possible tensions, either with the US or China. The baseline remains that we want to have a peaceful settlement of the territorial problems according to international law, we want to have freedom of navigation, but there are still lots of subtle differences in the interpretation. I think the American interpretation of the UN Law of the Sea is contestable, I have not read anywhere that you can put the warship in certain parts of the territorial waters or in the exclusive economic zones. That’s not defined so that’s up for discussion and I think it is not up to the EU to take a position. That’s up to the US and Chinese to find the settlement and I would say in the first place for the US to take up a proper engagement to advance the law of the sea rather than to continue to be an outsider.
What about European academia, is there any progress in China studies?
Yes, there is a very bright new generation of Asia and China watchers in Europe, many people go and study in China, which I think is very encouraging. But I think the challenge for Europe will be to come at a sort of division of labor so we can specialize a bit more. Nowadays we have dozens of people doing essentially the same things and that we should obviously avoid.
Do you think Europe can catch up with the US and their China scholarship?
I think we can catch up and we can also make a difference by having an alternative approach. The American approach is very neorealist, very positivist. Also I think if we would be able to make a difference it is by having an eclectic approach, and that’s sort of a part of our traditional academic culture, trying to combine all the different layers such as politics, culture, history, the economy, international context and so on. It is by having this holistic take that we can often come with a little more refined and less black and white assessment of what the situation is all about.
(Global Politics would like to thank dr. Jonathan Holslag for answering our questions and AMO – The Association for International Affairs, for cooperation).
Richard Turcsanyi is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of International Relations and European Studies, Masaryk University and the executive editor of Global Politics magazine.