FENG Zhongping: Constancy amid changes

Jin Ding/China Daily 

Despite competition, contradictions and conflicts, ties between the EU and China remain mainly cooperative 

In recent years, China-Europe relations have become one of the most important bilateral ties in the world. Both China and European countries recognize this and value their relations. Meanwhile, China-Europe relations are more complex than before. 

The rising significance of China-Europe relations can be firstly attributed to economic reasons. 

After decades of economic globalization, especially since China launched its reform and opening-up policy, the industry, supply and value chains between China and Europe have become deeply intertwined. According to Eurostat, the bilateral trade was 737.9 billion euros ($789.8 billion) in 2023. 

Eurostat data also show that in 2023, China was the EU's largest partner for imports of goods, accounting for 20.5 percent of the EU's total imports, and the third-largest partner for exports of goods, accounting for 8.8 percent of the total. Data from China's Ministry of Commerce shows that the EU had previously been China's largest trading partner, and only became the second-largest after Brexit in 2020. Clearly, China and the EU are inseparable economically. 

Both China and Europe recognize that their relationship is not just bilateral, but has an impact on the international order, as well as world peace, stability and prosperity. 

China and Europe pose no threat to each other, nor have they any fundamental conflict of interest. A new Cold War will not happen as long as China and European countries support multilateralism and oppose bloc confrontation, advocating economic globalization and opposing decoupling. 

Similarly, as long as China and Europe cooperate, there is hope for solving global challenges, including climate change, biodiversity loss and regional conflicts, such as the Ukraine crisis and the Middle East crisis. 

China-Europe relations are facing challenges. The most prominent of which is how Europe views its relationship with China and vice versa. 

Due to different political systems, national conditions and cultures, Europe and China have differences and contradictions on some issues, which China does not deny. But China believes that despite competition, contradictions and even fierce conflicts between the two sides, the bilateral ties are mainly cooperative, and China views Europe as a partner. 

Europe's attitude and views are somewhat different. While European countries and the EU understand that cooperation with China is indispensable on many issues, they still emphasize that China's development brings competition, not only economically and technologically, but also in terms of political systems and governance models. Therefore, Europe has identified China as a cooperation partner, an economic competitor, and a systemic rival since 2019. This has had a negative impact on the formulation and implementation of Europe's China policies. 

Having read EU policy documents on China and research reports from European think tanks, and having had conversations with European officials and experts, I believe that Europe has significant misunderstandings about China. 

For example, some Europeans believe that China wants to overturn the existing international order and establish a new one centered on itself. This is not true. China has no such intention. 

The keywords for China's diplomacy are equality and mutual respect. These principles by which China interacts with the outside world have remained unchanged since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. 

China advocates for a multipolar world, where countries treat each other equally and cooperate on a win-win basis. China adheres to peaceful development and calls for the resolution of international disputes through peaceful means. 

Even on issues such as the South China Sea, which concern China's sovereignty over territorial and maritime areas, China has consistently advocated for peaceful negotiations with relevant countries. Some European countries believe that China is tough on the South China Sea issue, but every country is tough when it comes to sovereignty issues. 

China-Europe relations are also subject to the influence from third parties. The Ukraine crisis and US policies toward China have had a negative impact on Europe's attitudes and policies toward China. 

The Ukraine crisis is now a top agenda item for European leaders' China visits. In mid-April, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited China and discussed not just economic and trade relations, but also the Ukraine crisis with Chinese leaders. 

China actively promotes a political solution to the Ukraine crisis, opposes escalation of the conflict, and the use of nuclear weapons or attacks on nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes. China and Europe can work together to push for a cease-fire between Russia and Ukraine. At the same time, there is nothing wrong with China maintaining normal economic and trade exchanges with both Ukraine and Russia. 

China and the EU are among the world's largest economies. On the one hand, economic and trade relations are the most important link connecting China and Europe, the cornerstone of the bilateral relations. On the other hand, economic and trade disputes are inevitable. What matters is that both sides take each other's economic and trade concerns seriously and resolve their disputes through negotiations. 

Feng Zhongping, director of Institute of European Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.   

The article was originally published in China Daily Global on May 6, 2024. The article has been authorized.