The twentieth summit between the European Union and China, which ended on 16 July 2018 in Beijing, reinforces the collaboration between the two actors both at the economic-commercial and the geopolitical levels. The summit was preceded by the EU-China High-level Strategic Dialogue – held on 1 June between the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, Federica Mogherini, and Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, – and the High-level Economic and Trade Dialogue – held in Beijing last 25 June between the vice-president of the European Commission, Katainen, and the Chinese vice-president, Liu He.
The importance of the twentieth summit is further confirmed by the occurrence of other relevant events in the same period, with the European Union again at the center of the political stage. At the time, Brussels found a last-minute compromise on trade conditions between the two sides of the Atlantic, avoiding US tariffs US President Trump was threatening to impose onto the EU. At the same time, the NATO summit, also held in July, widened the distance between European NATO member states and the US, when Trump threatened to reduce its commitment to NATO if the European NATO members do not increase their defense budgets. Parallel to the deterioration of the transatlantic relations, still in July the European Union signed two important agreements with Japan – the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) – and negotiated further improvements on commercial and economic relations with China. Notwithstanding these negotiating successes, EU-China relations are still going through some murky waters. For example, the 16 + 1 summit (which involves 16 Central and Eastern European countries plus China), held also in July, seems to undermine the economic and political cohesion of the EU, with China apparently sponsoring itself as an alternative model to Europe, with the risk that this might encourage states to defect from the EU or to undertake a geopolitical alignment with China. The other main concern regards China’s Silk Road infrastructural project, which could undermine European technological, industrial, and economic strength. However, notwithstanding the European major concerns towards Beijing’s economic and infrastructural expansion, this year’s twentieth EU-China summit was an overall success.
The summit addressed many topics. However, three stand out, not only because they reflect the main themes of the EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation signed in 2013, but also because they depend, in order to be successful, on the future commercial and geopolitical relations between the EU and China, especially in light of the growing tensions between Brussels and Washington and, more importantly, between Washington and Beijing on trade and geopolitics. The most important themes the two actors agreed upon regard security, trade and infrastructure, and the environment. As regards security, in line with the EU-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, a document aimed at strengthening the relationship between the two actors on geopolitical issues, the European Union underlined the importance of collaboration with China to solve those long-standing issues that destabilize the international system. One of the main topics concerned non-proliferation. Both actors expressed their willingness to preserve the Iranian nuclear agreement, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement Washington rejected in May. By confirming their commitment towards the JCPOA China and the EU demonstrated to be able to resist US political and economic pressure and threats of economic retaliation. This further highlights the progressive shift to the east by Brussels and the next possible ‘test case’ of EU-China cooperation in international politics is the ongoing nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula
China and the European Union have also emphasized their willingness to achieve greater collaboration on two other long-standing issues: the problem of cyber and piracy. On the first case, due to the high pervasiveness of cyber systems, capable of piercing the defenses of many governmental and non-governmental actors, the EU underlined the relevance of the EU-China Cyber Taskforce, established in 2012, and the importance of strengthening its functions, also in light of the next satellite system – GNSS-GALILEO (which the EU is about to implement). In other words, it is becoming more and more important to establish a code of conduct in cyberspace between the two actors in order to prevent possible institutional clashes that might lead to an open confrontation on security between EU and China. On the piracy issue, the EU seems to be willing to strengthen cooperation with China for the conduct of relief and peacekeeping operations in the areas deemed at risk.
As regards the commercial sector, the twentieth summit was of great importance for at least two reasons: firstly, Brussels seeks to increase trade with China, especially after the protectionist measures carried out by Trump, while, at the same time, the EU seeks to regulate its commercial relationship with Beijing, so as to encourage China to embark on the path of a greater economic openness, therefore increasing economic reciprocity between the two actors. A bigger openness could also pave the way for a greater adherence to the world trade regulations and hence to a greater protection of the European intellectual property and its know-how.
The second reason is particularly significant, since greater regulation of their bilateral relations serves both actors’ scope; that is, emphasizing the importance of multilateralism and the institutions regulating world trade, which represent the antidote to the protectionist and unilateral practices that characterize the current American foreign policy agenda. Furthermore, the strengthening of trade relations between Beijing and Brussels would have significant effects on the New Silk Road infrastructural project (BRI – Belt and Road Initiative) which is now a reality of economic and geopolitical cooperation between the European Union and China. The EU, in fact, wants to promote its investment plan (EU Investment Plan), so as to strengthen the hardware and software connectivity between Brussels and Beijing on several infrastructural levels, such as the maritime, air, land, energy and digital sectors. The increasing closeness between the two actors is further exemplified by the desire to implement the Near-term Action Plan of the EU-China Connectivity Platform, whose task is to strengthen the infrastructural link between China and the European Union.
Finally, the last sector concerns the environment and the desire to implement in the near future the Paris climate agreements, signed in 2015. On this issue, the EU-China adopted positions, which contradict American foreign policy choices, which led the US to abandon the Paris climate agreement. The joint summit document reaffirmed EU-China close cooperation on this critical issue. It echoed EU-China Joint Statement on Climate Change, signed in 2015, the EU-China Roadmap on Energy Cooperation,signed in 2016, and finally the EU-China joint communiqué on climate change, issued in June 2017. The twentieth EU-China summit, then, highlighted both actors’ willingness to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and to develop more multilateral relations for environmental protection.
The latest summit between the European Union and China, also in light of the significant events that took place in July, highlights the EU’s willingness to explore new diplomatic directions, due to the ongoing transformation of American foreign policy and its trade measures. In the meantime, China tries to exploit the new frictions that have developed within the Western front to increase its influence within the region, both through the summits with the European Union and with the other 16 countries of Central and Eastern Europe (the 16 + 1 summit), which might be starting to look at China as a potential alternative partner to the European model of integration. This, it is feared in Brussels, destabilizes the European institutional framework.