“In 12 years we have gone through a financial crisis, a euro crisis – a consequence of the first – and a migration crisis. Three crises in 12 years are too many for a fragile Union. But what we are facing now is even bigger, and it is an existential challenge ”. So High Representative for European Foreign Policy Josep Borrell in connection with the Berlaymont building he made his debut at the annual conference of German ambassadors. The tone of the speech is that of great occasions, and in some places it reaches dramatic accents: “Maybe we should look at Covid as a great accelerator of history” continues Borrell: “Analysts have talked at length about end of an American-led system is of the arrival of an Asian century. This is happening before our eyes and the pandemic can be remembered as the turning point in this process. ” Giving voice to a widespread sensation in the political and diplomatic circles of the continent, the High Representative underlined that in the clash between the United States and China, that the foreign minister of Beijing has already defined a “new Cold War”, on Europe ” the pressure to decide which side to stand on is growing ”. As the European Union, it warns “we should follow our interests and values and avoid being exploited from one or the other “. A break between China and the United States will not be inevitable, in short, but neither can the possibility be ruled out. And if it breaks, it will not be peaceful, nor will it be agreed: the geopolitical ownership of the next century is at stake. And Europe must have a strategy to avoid being crushed.
China: preferred partner?
The current balance on which Sino-European relations are based has a precise start date that coincides with the financial crisis of 2007-2008. “In the end – underlines Patrick Wintour in a long article in the Guardian – Beijing had helped the economic recovery of the continent, buying debt and assets on the verge of bankruptcy due to the crisis”. While from a political point of view, a few years later, “he did not join the Russian campaign by joining Nigel Farage’s chorus for Brexit and avoided expressing formal support for Moscow on the Ukrainian crisis”. China continued to woo Europe with plans for what would later become the Belt and Road Initiative (Bri), while Europe’s steadfastness towards the Asian giant “would have been frustrated by the growing repulsion for Donald’s ways. Trump – Wintour continues – and the widespread fear in Europe that if he had closed the door in Beijing, his main partner would have had to be Trump “.
… Or systemic rival?
The wind in the relations of the 27 with the Asian giant, has changed in 2019 and precisely on March 12. Disappointed by the lack of access to the Chinese internal market, also held back by a slowing economy, and alarmed by the aggressiveness of nationalism imprinted by President Xi Jinping, the European Commission released a report in which it defined China “A systemic rival proposing alternative governance models”. For years now, China has been the EU’s second largest trading partner, after the United States. But economic relations are marked by a constant red for Brussels. What many consider a lack of reciprocity in bilateral economic benefits has been synthesized by Margrethe Vestager, EU commissioner for competition, in a lightning joke: in the part of western Denmark where I grew up – he said – they taught us that if you invite a guest to dinner and he does not invite you in turn, then stop inviting him “.
Between August and November 2019, with increasing political tensions in Hong Kong, questions arose in several European countries about whether to enter into trade agreements with a country that repressed political dissent. In his speech to the March European Council, French President Emmanuel Macron said that “the era of European ingenuity towards China is over”. Referring to what was established by the Commission’s report, Macron stressed that “This awakening was necessary” because “for several years we have a loose order approach and China exploited our divisions. ”
The Italian exception?
A few weeks ago, Josep Borrell himself ended up in the middle of one controversy international, caused by a New York Times investigation accusing the Commission of “softening” a report on disinformation related to Covid-19 following pressure from the Chinese government. And in an article published this month in several European newspapers, Borrell urged the 27 to increase collective discipline towards China. A reference to countries such as Italy, which signed a memorandum of understanding on the Belt and road Initiative (Bri), thus becoming the first G7 country to support the initiative, promoting the construction of infrastructure works to include the ports of Trieste and Genoa on the new international trade routes. An understanding that today, in light of yet another repression of Beijing’s protest movements in Hong Kong and the shadows relating to the lack of transparency over the first weeks of the pandemic in China, raise many concerns.
The response the world gave to the 2008 financial crisis saw the United States and China lined up on the same front. Today, the virus is only the last trigger of the confrontation between Washington and Beijing while from the international point of view the posture of the two superpowers could not be more different: to thethe absence of American leadership decreed by Trump’s America First, Beijing’s challenging aggression contrasts. If the EU is called to make decisive choices and timely, the risk is getting trapped in the middle.
by Paolo Magri, ISPI Director
“The ‘choice’ between China and the United States, in a normal world, would make no sense: for cultural ties, political vision, economic and security relations, Europe has had a clear and precise location for decades. However, what we live in is not normal times and the cold war winds could force some partisan choice. Bad news for a Europe already grappling with many other difficult decisions: the European condominium, by its nature, does not like clear choices in foreign policy and when it is forced to do them … it usually divides! ”
By the editorial staff of ISPI Online Publications (ResponsibleDaily Focus: AlessiaDe Luca, ISPI Advisor for Online Publications)