Since establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1973, Spain has seen itself as an honest broker, maintaining a position of friendship with the PRC (above all through a scrupulous policy of “non-interference in internal affairs” vital to the PRC such as Taiwan or human rights) but never managing to establish a true partnership. Despite their having signed a comprehensive partnership agreement in 2018, and the fact that on several occasions Spain took the initiative of calming tensions between the EU and China, different factors and priorities continue to push this relationship to the periphery of Spanish foreign policy. Paradoxically, in spite of the rise of Asia-Pacific for the Spanish Foreign Policy since middle 90s, and the launch of successive Asia-Pacific Plans from 2000 forward, including the current “A Strategic Vision for Spain in Asia 2018-2022”, the Spanish position has been more reactive than proactive and Spain has progressively had to approach the PRC because it has been increasing its presence and interests in the areas which have traditionally been of vital importance to Spain: Europe (EU), the Mediterranean, Latin America and the relationship with the United States.
Above all, Spain as a member of the EU, has largely maintained the default position of the European Union, as opposed to consciously developing its own stances which are truly autonomous from those of the EU, except perhaps in Latin America and the Mediterranean. Further complicating the matter are several structural and unique problems that will shape its foreign policy, both generally but especially where the PRC is concerned. Chief among the structural issues at play is the loss of weight Spain holds within the EU. The main reasons for this shift include internal political weakness, the country’s reduced economic power since 2008 and an increased dependence on the EU. The reduction in weight and dependence has been clearly seen in the last negotiations of the investment agreement with the PRC where Spain together with other states as such as Italy and Poland criticized the German Presidency of the EU Council for ignoring calls for more precaution and for risks in alienating incoming US President Joe Biden.
One of the new problems would be Spain’s view on the PRC. Although the unfavorable opinion about the PRC in the Spanish public opinion reached its peak in 2020, mainly resulting from the PRC’s and President Xi Jinping’s mishandling of the Sars-CoV-2 pandemic (according to a 2020 Pew Research Center study), this has been a constant trend for the last 20 years, going from a 21% negative vision to 63%. Another factor is the setback received by Huawei’s 5G technology: the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Japan have banned Huawei’s instruments, while India and Canada are expected to impose a ban in the future. In the case of the EU, most countries, including France and Germany, have not banned Huawei. However, the main Spanish telecommunications company, Telefonica, plans to reduce the purchase of 5G equipment from Huawei.
Nevertheless, during a visit to Spain in September 2020 of the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission for the Chinese Communist Party, Yang Jiechi (parallel to PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to five European countries probably aimed to securing support for the EU-PRC investment agreement), the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, underlined that relations between the two countries are going through a “very sound” period. Probably Sánchez would like to extend the Integral Strategic Association within the framework of the Joint Declaration signed in 2018, during the State visit by Xi Jinping to Spain. However, Spanish support for greater strategic autonomy for Europe implies caution in dealing with China: for instance, to avoid getting caught up in disputes between the United States and the PRC, and in debt diplomacy in the face of the economic crisis it is going through. China’s investments in Spain have grown by 800% since 2014, including Chinese holdings in the ports of Valencia and Bilbao. China’s economic and strategic commitments to Spain directly affect the EU. In addition, by focusing on Spain and other states considered weaker such as Portugal, the PRC seeks to consolidate the assets they have already acquired in both countries despite the reserves of other member states of the European Union: Chinese investments in absolute figures are higher in UK and in Germany, but as a percentage of GDP, they are higher in Spain and Portugal, and the amount of Spanish sovereign debt in Chinese hands has been around 6%.
Thus, at the bilateral level, the PRC’s substantial increase in power is taking place in parallel to the decline in power and influence of Spain in two geopolitical key spheres: the European Union and Latin America, where China’s preferences run through other alternatives, focusing their attention on a more direct relationship with the most important actors. The EU’s international loss of weight is operating in China a substantial shift in focus. The PRC is perfectly clear that the main way to gain influence in European politics today is to strengthen interdependence with the main capitals in a circular and enveloping strategy that includes the Central and East European Member States and by outflanking Brussels. China has been working tirelessly to achieve its aims in Europe, and Spain must act quickly to capitalize on the opportunity. Other better positioned actors continue to gain favour and strategies ties with the PRC. The longstanding political harmony between the two will continue to lose value over time, as too will their chance to turn their “understanding” into a meaningful and mutually beneficial partnership.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and ISPI.