The EU-China Summit to be held in Brussels this week comes at a crucial and unprecedented juncture in EU-China relations. The timing is critical: both for the frictions that have piled up over the last few months over issues left open or unaddressed in previous summits (summarized in a broad quest by the EU for reciprocity in business and trade conditions), and for the recent circumstances arising during President Xi’s state visit to Italy, Monaco and France at the end of March (when the different positions of Italy and France confirmed that there is still a long way to go for a shared and effective EU position vis à vis China, beyond the reiterated need for a common China strategy).
The timing is also unprecedented to the extent that both sides are now not simply aware of the need to shift from unproductive communiqués to common action, but they also have incentives to do so. Until mid-2017, they did not, and on top of that, major European countries had diverging positions, namely, Germany was convinced it could have a preferential relation with China, letting other smaller member states bear the burden of dealing individually with the Chinese push to acquire stakes in a series of domestic assets. But then the time came that China started to get pushy with Germany, too, with the acquisition of Kuka, so Berlin has now aligned with more cautious attitudes. Incentives for joint action, though, arose only very recently, when rumors started at the end of 2018 that Italy was considering joining the BRI and then in early 2019 was about to sign a specific bilateral MoU despite significant concerns and pressures from Washington. Italy’s move has shown, on the one hand, that its strategic position in the Mediterranean poses a challenge to the dominant role of Germany and the Netherlands in governing the routes of trade between all of the EU and China, and keeping the business of logistics and shipping in their pockets. While Piraeus was the only entry point for sea routes from China into Europe, the lack of viable ports in Italy still required cargo to travel to Rotterdam, but now the possibility that the transport infrastructure part of the BRI in Europe pivots on Italy, and no longer only on Duisburg and Rotterdam, is disturbing for Berlin.
Moreover, Italy’s move has also shown that, while Europe has taken its time to think about a common strategy, if any, China has not wasted time and has continued building strong bilateral relationships on the continent. And that the dialogues in Brussels have in no way prevented Beijing from building bridges with single member states. It is now clear that lacking a common strategy means that the future course of EU-China relations might end up being decided more in Beijing than in Brussels.
There are also external reasons that revitalize the need to raise the level of the strategic dialogue between the EU and China. The EU is a very important partner for China, now that the United States has somehow withdrawn from constructive discussions within the multilateral framework. China is also a very important partner for the EU, at a time when the US is reaffirming its role as strategic ally but at the same time is somehow sending the message that Europe might also be put under stress as an economic partner. Both China and the EU now have much stronger incentives to come to terms with concrete steps on their cooperation agenda.
For all of these reasons the upcoming summit is not going to be one of a series of summits with little impact. However, at the very moment Europe joins forces to show unity and have a common dialogue with China, the latter has developed its own view of how to deal with Europe, and it is not a shared strategy. There is a widespread narrative among Chinese scholars and policy advisors that European integration is failing because the foundation of this regional bloc has weakened. Therefore, the best bet for China is to have multiple strategies, and those are not fully consistent with a common European interest or with individual country’s national priorities.
One chief example of this view is how different subgroups of member states have been defined in China’s eyes. France and Germany, and partly still the UK, are the core strategic partners for EU-China cooperation, Central and Eastern European countries together with Greece are partners for pragmatic cooperation. Northern European countries are partners for potential and visionary cooperation along the so-called New Silk Road. The same narrative claims that Italy has a special role for China in Europe, similar to that of other southern European countries, which puts more stress on cultural exchanges and synergies between green technologies and quality food as chief national expertise, and the growing Chinese market. This view seems to match quite well with the contents of many of the business agreements signed during Xi’s visit to Italy. However, there is a lot more to the bilateral synergies that should be exploited between the two countries and Italy should be prepared to dismiss the view that industrial cooperation is discussed in Berlin and Paris while cultural and agricultural cooperation is handled in Rome.