China’s President, Xi Jinping, is a busy man. And if the European Union’s new leaders waste time in engaging with him, the EU could find itself gently, but firmly, shut out as Beijing steps up its game, both in the region and on global stage.
The Chinese president has had quite a week. Having hosted the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit, signed an unexpected agreement with President Barack Obama on cutting greenhouse gas emissions and eased tensions with Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe, Xi attended the East Asia Summit in Myanmar and will then be at the G20 gathering in Brisbane, Australia.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang did attend the Asia Europe Meeting in Milan last month — but the EU was represented at the meeting by the outgoing EU leaders, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and his colleague at the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso. Beijing is waiting for the new Commission chief Jean Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk who will head the European Council as of Dec 1, and the new EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to get in touch and answer whether the new men and women in Brussels will want a continuation or a change in in EU-China relations
Certainly, urgent matters at home and in Europe’s troubled neighbourhood command immediate attention. Juncker has also had to field embarrassing questions about allegations that Luxembourg was helping companies to dodge taxes while he was prime minister.
But still, reinforcing ties with the world’s second largest — and still fastest growing — economy must be also be an EU priority.
The good news is that after a few troubled years, Europe-China ties are encouragingly sound. Although trade frictions are unlikely to completely disappear, major trade quarrels have been settled. Differences over human rights notwithstanding, the EU and China have developed a good working relationship. As such, the new EU team inherits a relatively solid EU-China agenda. It must use this to further shape relations to fit a complex environment, both at home and in China.
But as the array of recent events, overtures and agreements illustrate it is busy with consolidating relations with the US and is focused on its immediate neighbourhood. Unless Europe acts quickly, it could lose China’s attention at a time when the two sides need each other.
It is worth repeating: Europe and China need each other, not least for economic reasons. Its growth rates may be slowing down, but China’s appetite for European goods and investments continues to be crucial in determining the pace and success of Europe’s economic recovery. China’s economic transformation demands that it has access to European know-how, experience and technology. China’s reform agenda also gives European companies myriad opportunities for enhanced trade and investments.
Second, a deeper EU-China relationship is important in order to polish Europe’s foreign policy credentials — in Washington, Moscow and in many Asian capitals. Asian countries, which are locked in territorial quarrels with Beijing in the East and South China Seas, believe Europeans can temper Beijing’s assertiveness on the issue and use its experience in managing cross-border challenges to ensure stability in the region.
Third, while Europe’s one-time dream of ensuring that China would one day become a “responsible” international stakeholder now appears hopelessly out-of-date and patronising in view of Beijing’s increasing global outreach and self-confidence in world affairs, there is no doubt that the EU needs to engage with China on a range of urgent foreign and security policy issues, including relations with Russia, Iran’s nuclear plans, policy towards the IS, fighting Ebola and combating climate change.
Significant headway has been made in recent years, especially in EU-China economic ties. Trade relations remain buoyant, with bilateral trade in goods valued at about 420 billion euros in 2013. Trade in services, currently estimated at about 50 billion euros annually, is expected to grow as China opens up its services sector and as new reform efforts begin to bear fruit. More is being done to increase bilateral investment flows.
There is still much more to discuss and discover. China is in the midst of massive change as the focus shifts to boosting consumer demand and away from an excessive reliance on investments and exports. The emphasis is also on fighting pollution, ensuring sustainable urbanisation and implementing other aspects of last year’s massive national reform agenda agreed at the Third Plenum. More recently, China’s Fourth Plenum shifted the focus to the rule of law, governance and legal reform. President Xi, widely regarded as China’s most powerful leader in recent decades, is stepping up his anti-corruption campaign.
Beijing has been true to its word in making 2014 “the year for Europe”, with both President Xi and Premier Li travelling to key European capitals. The EU’s new leaders must reciprocate through visits, convening of an EU-China summit early next year and rapid organisation of the high-level political, economic and people-to-people dialogues.
As China and the EU prepare to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their partnership next year, the relationship must be made more resilient, robust — and mutually respectful.