Three-way push and pull
Trilateral dynamics among China, the EU and the US remain fundamentally unchanged
China and the United States have been increasingly vying with each other in the past four years. However, Donald Trump's indiscriminate trade wars, coupled with his capriciousness, made it unlikely he would be able to rally the West against China during his presidency. Unlike Trump, Joe Biden values allies and he hopes especially to rebuild transatlantic relations. At the virtual Munich Security Conference on Feb 19, Biden delivered a speech as the new US president, claiming that there will be long-term and strategic competition with China, and calling on the US' European allies to jointly confront China. The "threats" from China and Russia were also played up at the virtual meetings of NATO Defense Ministers on Feb 17 and 18.
The US regards China as its main competitor, and it seeks to contain China's development, in particular its scientific and technological progress. Since it is unlikely to change the containment policy toward China implemented by the Trump administration, European countries expect the Biden administration to ask them to join it in its bid to contain China. The only difference may be strategies and methods.
Europe has also had a big change of attitude toward China in recent years. The European Union defines China as a partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival, which reveals Europe's ambivalence toward China. Although the EU still pursues an engagement policy, precaution has been accentuated.
While helping the US to force China to change its economic operation mode, or at least to open its market wider and faster, the EU also wants to stifle China's scientific and technological progress and prevent Chinese standards from becoming global standards. Although the two demand the same things from China and have taken some joint actions, such as strengthening coordination on the World Trade Organization reform and pressuring China together, there was limited coordination between the two sides under the Trump administration. The Biden administration has made it clear that it will consult with the EU on an equal footing.
Therefore, China-EU relations will face greater pressure in the future. In terms of values, the Biden administration has proposed a "Global Democracy Summit" to be held this year, which is intended to address global corruption, defend human rights, contain so-called autocracies, and tackle alleged election interference. European countries have supported the idea. In terms of the high-tech sector, the EU's policy toward China has begun to show signs of Americanization, such as restricting high-tech cooperation with China, preventing Chinese companies from mergers and acquisitions in EU countries and rejecting Huawei's 5G equipment. It is expected that there will be closer cooperation between the EU and the US in the formulation of rules and standards in related fields in the future, while economic and trade relations between China and the developed economies of the EU will face more headwinds, especially in technological cooperation.
Europe and the US may also demand that China make commitments beyond its development stage and capacity on climate change and will also form a united front on the reform of international organizations such as the WTO and the World Health Organization.
All these developments stand in the way of greater cooperation between China and Europe.
But there is still room for China-EU cooperation.
First, unlike the US, the EU has no hegemonic interests and does not regard China as a real security threat. To maintain its hegemony, the US would rather put its economic interests aside and hurt China at its own cost, while the EU is unlikely to do so. Unconditional support for the strategic and geopolitical interests of the US is not necessarily in the EU's interests. Therefore, European leaders have made it clear that Biden's call for a united front against China would be counterproductive.
Second, China and the EU have a mutually beneficial relationship based on close cooperation and a solid economic foundation. Undermining this relationship would essentially hurt European countries' own interests. For this reason, China and the EU concluded the negotiations on an investment agreement on Dec 30, 2020. The China-EU agreement on protecting geographical indications also came into effect on March 1 this year. These show that the two sides share strong common interests which necessitate strong practical cooperation.
Third, the EU and the US have different interests regarding some major issues of concern to Europe, such as Middle East stability and the development of Africa on which it may not gain strong support from the US but instead require Chinese support and cooperation.
So although new administration in the US will bring about some changes in EU-US relations, which will affect China-EU relations, the trilateral dynamics will not change fundamentally. The EU and the US will go closer and get along better but substantive cooperation will still be hard to achieve. China-US relations are unlikely to change for the better, but at least there will be more predictability. There will be more uncertainty in China-EU relations, but what is certain is that Europe will not abandon its engagement policy with China.
Instead of being just an onlooker, the EU has always sought to strike a balance between China and the US to its utmost advantage. Without the bullying pressure from the US that was exerted by the Trump administration, the EU could be more independent and better play its role as a mediator between China and the US. The three sides may therefore interact in a healthier way. But, of course, that is no sure thing.
The world needs cooperation instead of confrontation. This is what the three sides need to work together for.
The author is an assistant president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations and director of the Institute of European Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.