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How Does Europe Rank in China’s Diplomacy?

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How Does Europe Rank in China’s Diplomacy?

China’s increasing ties with Europe point to several new diplomatic goals and priorities for Beijing.

How Does Europe Rank in China’s Diplomacy?
Credit: China, EU puzzle pieces image via Shutterstock

For some time, Chinese diplomacy has used the following saying: “Great powers are the key, neighboring countries are the most important, developing countries are the foundation, and multilateralism is an important arena.” Most of China’s diplomatic relationships can be categorized using this formula. The China-U.S. relationship is naturally a great power relationship. China-Japan ties can be considered a neighboring country relationship. China-India relations are relations between developing countries. The relationships between China and international organizations like United Nations are an important part of Chinese multilateral diplomacy. But which class does the China-Europe relationship belong to?

In fact, the China-Europe relation can be divided into two levels: the continental level and the national level. From the national level, Europe can be further divided into such a few secondary levels: new Europe vs. old Europe, or poor Europe vs. rich Europe.

With the continuous advance of European integration, the relationship between China and Europe shows at least three forms— China-European Union (EU) relations, China-Eurozone relations, and the relationship between China and each European country. Thus China-Europe relations actually fit several categories: the diplomacy among great powers (for example China-Germany and China-UK relations), the diplomacy among developing countries (for example the relationships between China and some economically undeveloped countries in Eastern Europe), and multilateral diplomatic relations (for instance, China-EU cooperation). Therefore, according to the saying above, the China-Europe relationship is “key,” a “foundation,” and an “important arena.” And we can’t rule out that it will be seen as “most important” in the future.

However, China-Europe relations are not all-powerful. In the eyes of ordinary Chinese people, the relationships most worthy of diplomatic attention are China’s ties to the U.S. and Japan, as well as South Korea and Southeast Asian countries. Because these relationships are closely related to China’s vital interests, they spark more concern and awareness from the people. In contrast, although China-Europe relations start on a high note, the topic seems both remote and highbrow.

Actually, since the new leadership under Xi Jinping took power last year, China-Europe relations have been undergoing an subtle shift. They are becoming “more local” by adding a elements that please the general population. Below, I’ll give an overview of the past year’s development in China-Europe relations.

First of all, economy and trade still hold the most important place in China-Europe relations.

Last year, in Xi Jinping’s four intensive trips abroad, he did not visit Europe (except for Russia, which is not considered to be member of the European group by China’s diplomatic circles). During Xi’s first year, he was willing to fly for over 20 hours to visit faraway Africa and Latin America, but he didn’t set foot on the European continent. This wasn’t a diplomatic mistake but rather part of another plan.

As China’s top military and political leader, Xi Jinping’s first wave of foreign travel was a kind of political declaration. For example, his first visit abroad was to Russia, which had a clear political implication. In addition, Xi paid visits to Africa and Latin America, where his emphasis on aid projects reflected that China values politics more than economic trade. Even the indispensable economic and trade components of these visits abroad were relatively weak. In an even more obvious example, the meeting between Xi and Obama last June at Annenberg Estate served as a classic example of political interaction rather than economic cooperation.

Just from the itinerary of Xi’s first round of foreign visits, we can see that China’s diplomatic emphasis in Europe isn’t on making political declarations. Furthering this impression, last year, Premier Li Keqiang, who is in charge of economic affairs, made three trips abroad, of which two were to Europe. He naturally discussed economic and trade cooperation with European leaders. This proves how top Chinese leaders view Europe’s diplomatic status—they overemphasize economic cooperation. After all, the EU is China’s largest trading partner and China is the EU’s second largest trading partner. This mutually beneficial relationship is the best force for maintaining the friendship between China and Europe.

Second, Europe is increasingly becoming a stage for China to speak politically.

In the second half of last year, especially after the late October Central Committee conference on diplomatic work with neighboring countries, China-Europe relations caught fire. There were many external signs. First, the EU-China Summit was held in November in Beijing, marking the first time China’s new leaders would meet with European leaders. This summit was actually a “repositioning” of the diplomatic relationship. Next, in late 2013 Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte started a trend of European leaders visiting China with his “fact-finding” mission after the Third Plenum. After Rutte, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault came to China seeking cooperation opportunities. Finally, Li Keqiang’s visit to Central and Eastern Europe further broadened and deepened China’s diplomacy towards Europe. The warming of China-Europe ties continued with Xi Jinping’s recent European tour. Diplomatic relations between two sides have seemed to warm up rapidly, and the reasons are thought-provoking.

I see three reasons for this. First, since the October conference on diplomatic work with neighboring countries, the CPC Central Committee has put more emphasis on diplomacy with China’s neighbors. The idea of a “greater neighborhood” arose from this occasion. To many scholars, besides the 14 countries actually bordering China, the scope of “great neighborhood” diplomacy includes other countries geographically close to China (for example, countries across the ocean from China, or countries adjacent to China’s neighbors). Some Central and Eastern European countries are even included in the important diplomatic scope of the “greater neighborhood” which requires more efforts to “manage” these relationships. Second, the “New Silk Road Economic Zone” proposed by Xi Jinping actually brings a new opportunity for China-Europe cooperation. This concept expands the western boundary of the Silk Road by incorporating Europe, highlighting Europe’s importance for China’s political and economic development. Third, as Sino-Japanese relations become tense, China urgently needs support from third parties. Therefore a war of words between China and Japan first broke out in the European embassies of the two countries. When Xi Jinping visited Europe, he criticized Japan publicly in Germany. China can unite around and learn from the willingness of European countries to refute Nazism and reflect on history. Europe unwittingly becomes a political stage for China, providing a new field for China-Europe cooperation that is of great importance to China.

From this perspective, in the future Europe will enjoy a higher position in Chinese diplomacy. In less than a year, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang each paid visits to Germany, and during Xi’s visit, he promoted Sino-Germany relations to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Compared to the “comprehensive strategic partnership” between China and the EU, Sino-German relations seem to be even more important. An increased emphasis on China-Germany relations, in fact, reflects China’s increased concern for Europe as a whole. After all, Germany is a leading country in the EU and eurozone, and to a certain degree represents the voice of Europe. In the future, we might see China further upgrade its relations with other European countries, or even the EU.

Third, Europe is a necessity for China to balance its relations towards the United States and Russia.

As said above, the development of Sino-Japanese relations needs a third party to act as a fulcrum. In the same way, China-Europe relations can’t escape third parties, whose mood will influence the China-Europe relationship. For many years, the United States has acted as this third party, who had a hand in many important events in China-Europe relations. For example, Europe has maintained a weapons embargo on China since 1989—at the instigation and insistence of the United States. Although some European countries have different views, due to America’s large influence on the EU, it “manipulates” the path of China-Europe relations.

However, as Chinese diplomacy became more proactive, China’s development became a huge opportunity for Europe. More European politicians have already recognized this inevitable historical trend. Therefore, it will be both easy and effective for China to use the “Europe card” against the U.S. in the future. After the global Nuclear Security Summit at The Hague, Netherlands, Xi and Obama each paid a visit to Europe. Their trips were naturally compared by the media. The sensitive Pakistani media noted that, although the U.S. and Europe both belong to the alliance of Western civilizations, Obama cannot give Europe the “nutrients” it urgently needs, like economic markets and jobs. Due to this, Europe prefers China to be its “new best friend.”

In addition, the Crimea crisis gave a new color to Xi’s Europe trip. Russia has gradually become a third party in China-Europe relations. China-Russia relations have reached a very high political level, with the two enjoying a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership,” a level beyond a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” “Cooperative” means that two sides will work together for a common purpose, implying that they are quasi-allies.

But the development of China-Russia relations doesn’t mean that China will abandon China-Europe relations. On the contrary, China-Europe relations are necessary to balance China-Russia relations. Thus, in the future China-Europe relations will have more opportunities for development.

Take the Crimea question as an example. China has maintained a relatively objective and neutral stance, wining understanding and support from some European countries. The Crimea crisis gives China an opportunity to keep a proper balance between Russia and Europe without affecting its national interests. China’s use of Europe as a balancing mechanism for the United States and Russia will become an important consideration for developing China-Europe relations in the future.