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Germany holds key to improving EU-China ties

By Adriel Kasonta | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-10-26 08:55
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A government handout shows German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a video conference with China's President Xi Jinping, European Council President Charles Michel, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Sept 14, 2020. Germany is, since July 1, at the head of the rotating presidency of the EU. [Photo/Agencies]

The year 2020 was supposed to be one of uninterrupted globalization and free trade-until the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a cataclysmic effect on the world's economies.

The shock wave brought about by the virus affected every facet of normal life, from our personal relationships to international relations.

Social distancing decimates human interactions and levies a greater burden on proper diplomatic interactions between countries.

What seems to be coming hand in hand with the above is a deep reflection about not only a country's role in the world, but also its ties to others.

According to the report "Transatlantic Trends 2020: Transatlantic Opinion on Global Challenges Before and After COVID-19", Germany is the undisputed leader in Europe, and the country's influence has risen since January.

The document published in June by The German Marshall Fund (in cooperation with the Bertelsmann Foundation and Institut Montaigne) found that while 63 percent of German respondents and 64 percent of French respondents viewed Berlin as the most influential European power in January, the country's esteem during the pandemic rose by 13 points and 8 points, respectively.

The same research also suggests that China's influence on the global stage has risen significantly after the first wave of the pandemic ended, with the doubling of results between January and May 2020: from 13 percent to 28 percent in France, and from 12 percent to 20 percent in Germany.

These findings seem to be part of a bigger trend as the Pew Research Center's survey (conducted in partnership with nonprofit foundation Korber-Stiftung) published in May 2020 found that although 37 percent of German respondents said they prioritized their country's relationship with the United States, 36 percent felt the same about China. A year ago, the difference was 50 percent to 24 percent in favor of the US.

Furthermore, the same can be found in Korber-Stiftung's research paper "The Berlin Pulse: German Foreign Policy in Times of COVID-19", which said that "73 percent of Germans say that their opinion of the US has deteriorated-more than double the number of respondents who feel the same way towards China".

EU-China relations are Germany's EU presidency priority. Foreign policy is concerned this year with an overall objective of "strengthening Europe as an anchor of stability in the world," as Chancellor Angela Merkel announced.

Relations are all the more important for the EU, as they also relate to its economic ties with China-bearing in mind that the latter was once again Germany's most important trading partner in 2019. Germany accounts for about one-third of China's trade with the EU, and it is the bloc's largest exporter to China in the EU.

As the fund's report suggests, both the French and German sides see the ongoing health crisis and climate change as the most important global challenges to address.

Europe has a lot to learn from China in dealing with COVID-19. We can also see an active attempt on the side of Germany to engage Beijing in cooperating with Europe on climate protection.

A virtual event organized by Germany's Federal Foreign Office and the German Energy Agency on Oct 6 titled "China and the EU-New Alliances for Climate Protection", served as a good follow-up to September's e-meeting, during which the two sides announced more ambitious climate targets and agreed to set up a high-level environment and climate dialogue.

With the EU wanting to base its recovery measures on the European Green Deal, decisive steps have to be made on the part of China to seize the moment if it is serious about having a long, mutually beneficial and friendly relationship with the "Old Continent".

While the rest of the world scrambles to prevent new coronavirus cases from stalling the fragile recovery into recession, China was the only major world power to avoid it, with its GDP recording a year-on-year rise of 4.9 percent in the third quarter.

As the yuan's recent appreciation proves positive for China's imports-which, according to Reuters, "grew at their fastest pace this year in September" (surging 13.2 percent)-as well as people's spending power, the global shift to consuming goods from services may serve as a perfect opportunity for the country to fuel Europe's growth.

On top of its ambition to be an independent geopolitical player on diplomacy and climate change, Europe is in desperate economic need of a good relationship with China. China, which views the EU as a much-needed counterweight to an increasingly aggressive US, should not miss a chance to do its best to be seen more as a "strategic partner" than a "systemic rival" by the bloc that aims to be a broker between Beijing and Washington.

With Merkel making clear in 2018 that she would not seek a fifth term as chancellor in 2021, and wanting to be remembered as a stateswoman under whose leadership Europe was saved from yet more immigration and economic collapse, this year possibly presents the most promising opportunity for China to improve and secure its relations with the EU for years to come.

The writer is former chairman of the international affairs committee at The Bow Group think tank in the United Kingdom. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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