Insa Ewert: More Concrete Actions to Realize the Four Partnerships
Insa Ewert is a research fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) and a Marie-Curie Fellow in the EU-funded Initial Training Network PRIMO- Power and Region in a Multipolar Order.
Q: What do you think of the four partnerships between China and the EU?
A: The four partnerships reaffirmed by the EU and China during the summit in Brussels in 2014, namely peace, growth, reform and civilization, form a basis for mutual understanding and shape common perspectives between policy-makers on both sides. They should, however, not be mistaken with a detailed playbook on the working-level, but rather be recognized as a high-level framework.
As a next step, a common understanding of what these agreed terms include in practice needs to be forged. For instance if we look at the term reform: Xi Jinping suggested to enhance exchanges, share experience and deepen cooperation in the fields of macro economy, social governance, employment, people's livelihood, environmental protection and others. These issues are already being dealt with to a large extent within the established dialogues between the EU and China. These dialogues are however criticized by some for not producing concrete, visible outcomes. It will therefore be key to transform the four partnerships from being useful in guiding the EU-China relationship in the future into a common, more nuanced understanding and specific measurable and achievable outcomes in these areas.
Q: How should we realize four partnerships between?
A: The most effective way of realizing the four partnerships would be through concrete projects rather than merely introducing further dialogues. The framework of dialogues allows the EU and China to discuss a variety of issues, but to take the EU-China relationship to the next level, more tangible outcomes are needed.
This means that for instance for peace the EU and China would set up a consultation mechanism to discuss and coordinate approaches to current global issues and their respective roles and contributions to these. The partnership on growth is one that is already tackled with significant progress being made, for example through China’s contribution to the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI), cooperation within the framework of OBOR or the on-going negotiations over a bilateral investment agreement.
As mentioned above, the issue of reform remains quite vague and would profit by identifying more specific issues and goals. The partnership on civilization can be further enhanced through specific funding opportunities for people-to-people exchanges in academia, the public sector, NGOs, etc. Overall, the priorities and next steps for a concrete and successful realization of the four partnerships should be embedded in new forms of institutional cooperation, adding to the existing dialogue structure.
Q: If we want to promote China-EU relations further, we need to find out the problems. In your views, what are the problems for China-EU ties?
A: The most common answer to this question focuses on specific issues such as market access for European companies in China, trade disputes or the arms embargo. Solving these issues can provide short-term benefits for the relationship, but long-term relations could be strengthened more substantially by taking the meta-level into account.
On a substantial level, the most salient challenge for EU-China relations is the lack of a common strategic perspective, although both, the EU and China, are aware that cooperation is indispensable. For instance regarding trade relations, the EU is China’s largest trading partner, while China is the EU’s second largest trading partner. However, I do not see a clear vision, idea or goal for this relationship on the European side, much less a shared goal. Such a goal would help plan the relationship in times where the Chinese economy is developing rapidly and the overall economic and social conditions in China are changing. If you don’t know where you want to go, it will be very difficult to map out how to get there.
Second, there is a lack of understanding and profound knowledge on the EU’s side when it comes to Chinese culture, language, history, society, economy and politics. The number of EU policy-makers that actually have spent a considerable amount of time in China, learned the language or dealt with questions of Chinese politics, language and society extensively is still very limited. The same goes for overall recruitment in the European Institutions. It seems there is much less focus on attracting people with a China-background than we for instance see in the US.
Finally, both partners allocate a large share of their resources to their neighborhood and the relations with other partners. The EU is primarily preoccupied with its own economic and financial crises, Greece, the Ukraine and Russia, a possible “Brexit”, and increasing migration. These are all important issues, but it is equally important not to lose sight of other strategic relationships at the same time. Global economic interdependencies are evident and increasing and should as such receive adequate weight in China’s and the EU’s strategy planning.
Q: How can we deal with these problems?
A: The above-mentioned problems are largely an issue of priority and awareness. The second issue, the lack of knowledge and understanding of China, its society, economy and politics, can be tackled in the easiest way. More training and funding in this area as well as recruitment strategies in policy making, businesses, NGOs, etc. would bring improvements and enhance mutual understanding. Policy-makers in the European institutions would also welcome more transparency and openness in the Chinese policy-making process in order to learn about and better understand these processes. Solutions to the first and third issue are much more difficult.
Finding a common strategy towards China is very difficult for the EU because of its fragmented institutional build-up, in which very different interests persist among member states and the various EU institutions. However, more open discussions among the stakeholders and aiming to move beyond the current overstretched rhetoric would be a first step in the right direction. It is important to keep in mind that the European project is exactly that, a project. This means that it is evolving and in many areas is still work in progress. The EU will remain preoccupied with the mentioned issues in its immediate neighborhood. But, as indicated above, this should not mean that other issues and important partners are paid too little attention.
Q: What is the importance of knowledge or mutual understanding in the context of EU-China relations?
A: The issue of knowledge and information is particularly salient in EU-China relations. But it is not discussed nearly as frequently as the question whether and to what extent the relationship is strategic. Different actors in the EU have also called for a more coherent and practically applicable vision and EU strategy on China; however, the more important aspect of individual and collective knowledge and information on China in the European Institutions is largely neglected.
My research shows that this issue is of outmost importance. Which information is available influences policy-makers’ approaches towards China and hence has practical policy implications. Especially regarding China with its huge diversities and available competing narratives, where anyone wanting to make a particular argument can find just about whatever he or she is looking for, it is important that policy-makers can source from a pool of well-founded information sources. My research however also indicates that the knowledge network on China around the European Institutions is rather limited.
Q: People say there is synergy between China’s One-belt-one-road and the EU’s Juncker Plan. How to create the synergy?
A: Indeed, there are overlaps in the goals of both projects as China is looking for investment opportunities and the EU aims at attracting funding for European projects. Moreover, both initiatives focus on investments in infrastructure. When we consider China’s OBOR initiative more generally, European policy-makers still find it difficult to understand this project and how they can contribute. From a European perspective it is unusual that the Chinese government does not define the investments beforehand.
In contrast, China has already committed to contribute to the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) via its Silk Road Fund. In a next step specific projects will be chosen for the Chinese investments that are said to range between €5 billion and €10 billion in total. This concrete success already demonstrates how both sides can gain by exploring the mentioned synergies.
To conclude, it can be said that enhanced cooperation in terms of more concrete projects and better mutual understanding can improve the relationships on a content and institutional level significantly.
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