Building on Past Successes and Bringing China-EU Relations to New Heights under the New Situation

By Qin Gang

1. China-European Union (EU) relations have the distinctive features of being strategic, comprehensive, innovative and stable

This year marks the 45th anniversary of China-EU diplomatic ties. On 5 May 1975, Premier Zhou Enlai met with visiting Vice-President of the European Economic Community (predecessor of the EU) Commission, Christopher Soames, and the two sides reached agreement on entering into diplomatic relations. On the next day, the diplomatic relationship was officially established. This was a political decision with high strategic vision jointly made by leaders of the two sides against the backdrop of the Cold War and confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. It not only greatly advanced the development of both sides, but also had a deep impact on the whole world.

By 6 May this year, China-EU relations had traveled a journey of a full 45 years. With joint efforts of the two sides, the relationship has come a long way. There have been frequent high-level exchanges and interactions, increasing mutual political trust, broader areas for practical cooperation, deeper integration of interests, many highlights in people-to-people exchanges and notably closer coordination in international affairs. China-EU relations have become one of the most important bilateral relations in the world, bringing more development opportunities to both sides, more benefits to people of the two sides, and more hope and positive energy to this world of much uncertainty.

Over the past 45 years, China-EU relations have gradually trended toward diversity, maturity and closeness, with distinctive features of being strategic, comprehensive, innovative and stable.

Strategic means the two sides have all along viewed their relations from a strategic perspective, and continuously stepped up cooperation in international affairs and global governance with a sense of responsibility. As history attests, China is a comprehensive strategic partner, not a systemic rival. China sees the EU as an opportunity for rather than a threat to its development. In both good and bad times of the EU, China has been steadfast in supporting the European integration process, supporting a united and strong EU and supporting the EU in playing a bigger role in international affairs. Amid profound changes unseen in a century, China and the EU, as two major players, markets and civilizations, have identical or similar views of the world in many ways. Both sides consider each other as a priority in their foreign policies. Both see it as their duty to uphold world peace and promote common development. Both believe in defending multilateralism and free trade. Both champion safeguarding the authority of the United Nations (UN), international law and basic norms governing international relations. Both are committed to promoting a multi-polar world and greater democracy in international relations. Working together, the two sides made important contributions to the adoption of the Paris Agreement for tackling climate change, and have stepped up coordination and cooperation in global issues such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and reform of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and in regional hotspot issues including the Iranian nuclear issue and Syria. These efforts have added stability to the turbulent world and injected fresh impetus into the sluggish global economy.

Comprehensive means China-EU relations have advanced in all dimensions, in wide-ranging areas and at multiple levels. China has developed its relationship with the EU in a comprehensive and balanced manner, attaching importance to cooperation with both EU Member States and EU institutions. Immediately following the inauguration of the new EU leadership last December, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang had separate phone calls with President Charles Michel of the European Council and President Ursula von der Leyen of the European Commission, achieving a smooth transition of bilateral relations. China-EU cooperation has expanded from economy and trade at the outset to many other areas covering peace and security, the environment, science and technology, culture, education and health and others, reaching unprecedented levels in both breadth and depth. Between China and the EU institutions alone, there are more than 70 consultation and dialogue mechanisms, including the China-EU Summit, the High-Level Strategic Dialogue, the High-Level Economic and Trade Dialogue and the High-Level People-to-People Dialogue. It is indeed all-encompassing, with barely any topic left unaddressed.

Innovative means both sides set store by progressing with the times, and have continuously injected fresh impetus into, added new substance to and created new highlights in their relations. In terms of how the relationship is defined, in 1998, the two sides decided to establish a 21st century-oriented long-term and stable constructive partnership, which was elevated to a comprehensive partnership in 2001 and then a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2003. In 2014, President Xi paid an official visit to the EU headquarters, the first one by Chinese head of state since the beginning of China-EU diplomatic ties. During the visit, the two sides decided to build the partnerships for peace, growth, reform and civilization, achieving another upgrading of the bilateral relationship. In terms of policy guidance, in 2003, China’s first EU Policy Paper was issued. It was the first policy paper targeting a region released to the public in the diplomatic history of the People’s Republic of China, and hence is of high political significance and provides strong policy guidance. Later on, the Chinese side crafted and published its second and third policy papers on the EU. The EU also published several policy papers on China. In terms of the content of China-EU cooperation, economic and trade cooperation is the anchor of the bilateral relationship. Last year, trade between the two sides exceeded US$700 billion, 300 times the figure at the start of diplomatic ties. Investment cooperation started from nil and has gone from one-way to balanced two-way flow, showing encouraging momentum of growth. Technological innovation, digital connectivity, green and environment-friendly development and artificial intelligence, among others, have gradually become the new highlights in China-EU cooperation. The two sides have placed emphasis on enhancing the complementarity between the Belt and Road Initiative and the EU Strategy on Connecting Europe and Asia, and there have been a series of early harvest projects. The cooperation mechanism between China and Central and Eastern European countries launched in 2012 meets the needs of both sides and is conducive to the balanced development and integration of Europe. This mechanism saw its membership expand for the first time last year.

Stable means both sides have acted in the larger interest, kept to the right direction, and cemented and grown their relations based on the principles of equality, trust and mutual respect. China and the EU have different histories, cultures and social systems and are at different stages of development; but between them, there is no fundamental conflict of strategic interests. Both take care to accommodate each other’s core interests and major concerns and see each other as important partners. As cooperation between the two sides grows, it is inevitable that some different views and frictions may arise. However, cooperation between the two sides far outweighs competition, and common understandings far outweigh differences. Over the past 45 years, China and the EU have remained focused on the underlying trend and the big picture, and kept to the path of dialogue rather than confrontation. Through equal dialogue, the two sides have got to know each other better and increased mutual understanding and trust. They have built consensus to the greatest extent possible, handled differences constructively and properly managed disagreements and frictions, ensuring that the bilateral relations remain on the right track and achieve steady, solid and sustained growth.

2. China and the EU are important partners in global cooperation against COVID-19

2020 is a big year for China-EU relations. Apart from jointly celebrating the 45th anniversary of their diplomatic ties, the two sides had also planned a series of important events to build on the momentum and bring the bilateral relationship to new heights. However, the unexpected outbreak of COVID-19 at the start of the year has brought an unprecedented public health crisis and economic and social challenges to the international community. China-EU relations have also been hit to an extent, with political and diplomatic agendas disrupted and multiple cooperation agendas temporarily postponed.

It should be noted that COVID-19 has not undermined the strong commitment of China and the EU to advancing their comprehensive strategic partnership. In fact, the battle against the virus has created new opportunities for bilateral cooperation. In this joint fight, the two sides have strengthened mutual trust, deepened cooperation and cemented bonds of friendship between the people. The epidemic is a mirror, reflecting that China and the EU are a community with a shared future and a common stake and that the essence of their relationship is cooperation and partnership.

 Although the virus has put a temporary brake on the normal high-level exchanges between China and the EU, it has not impeded bilateral communication. Leaders of the two sides have maintained close contact through such means as making phone calls and exchanging messages of sympathy, and high-level interactions are actually more frequent than before. President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi had contacts with leaders of EU institutions and Member States multiple times, communicating closely on mutual support and joint responses to COVID-19 and making important plans on such issues as enhancing information sharing, policy communication and technological exchanges and cooperation and jointly safeguarding regional and global public health security.

Ever since the beginning of the outbreak, people from various sectors of China and the EU have supported each other in the battle against the virus. The Chinese people will not forget how the EU and the governments and various sectors of its Member States helped China with a large amount of medical supplies and financial assistance in the toughest moment of China’s fight with the virus. The Chinese people will not forget the advertisement boards of “Stay Strong Wuhan” and “Support China” sponsored by several European football clubs around the pitch to convey best wishes to China, a country miles away, in its battle against the virus. The Chinese people will not forget the touching words from a member of the European Parliament that viruses respect no borders or regions and helping China is helping ourselves.

In the same spirit, when the COVID-19 situation in Europe became more severe, Chinese leaders sent messages of sympathy to leaders of the EU and its Member States on multiple occasions. China supported European countries in devising their COVID-19 response measures based on their respective situations. Though its own fight against the virus remains daunting, China did all it can to provide material assistance and support to many European countries, facilitated their commercial purchase in China and sent several medical teams to Europe. Enterprises in China worked around the clock manufacturing face masks, protective gowns and ventilators, and these products have been exported in an uninterrupted flow to Europe. Chinese companies, business associations and individuals in Europe have actively contributed in kind and in cash to the fight. Public health experts on both sides have been in close communication, and held multiple video conferences where they had in-depth exchanges and shared experience and lessons gained regarding the development of virus, prevention and control measures, diagnosis and screening, and research on vaccines and drugs. President von der Leyen posted on Twitter videos in English, French and German expressing appreciation for China’s help and saying that the EU and China need to support each other in times of need. We sincerely wish the people of Europe early victory in the fight against the virus.

China and the EU have played an important role in leading global cooperation against COVID-19. Openness, cooperation and multilateralism are essential in dealing with a pandemic. As important, responsible members of the international community and advocates of multilateralism, China and the EU have resolutely supported the WHO in playing a central role in coordinating a global response to COVID-19, actively called for and facilitated global cooperation on public health, and contributed to the important consensus reached at the G20 Summit, sending a message of solidarity and partnership and providing a strong confidence boost to the international community. To support and answer the call of the WHO and promote the development of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, China actively participated in and contributed to the global fund-raising conference early May jointly initiated by the EU and relevant countries and international organizations. China and the EU have jointly called for help from the international community to developing countries in strengthening their public health systems and raising their ability in responding to the virus, and actively promoted tripartite or plurilateral cooperation. In the face of COVID-19, solidarity and confidence are more precious than gold, whereas shifting blame and finger-pointing are more horrible than the virus. While we fight the invisible enemy of the coronavirus, we must stay on alert to a “political virus” of stigmatization. Working together in strong solidarity is the only way for the international community to get through the dark times and win the battle against the virus.

China and the EU have taken concrete steps to facilitate openness and cooperation and safeguard an open global economy. COVID-19 has hit all areas of global production and demand in a degree comparable to the 2008 global financial crisis. Some even predict that the world will experience the most severe recession since the 1930s. In the coronavirus crisis, there is more talk of deglobalization, decoupling and protectionism. With their economies taking up one third of the global total, China and the EU shoulder important responsibility for stabilizing and promoting global economic recovery. The two sides have been working to advance both the fight against COVID-19 and economic and social development to counter the global downward pressure. At the same time, the two sides have called on all parties to enhance coordination of their macroeconomic policies and take all necessary measures to keep global industrial and supply chains stable in the post-COVID era and promote trade and investment liberalization and facilitation, to jointly spur the recovery of the global economy and achieve more balanced and sustainable growth. 

One concrete action speaks louder than a hundred slogans. Despite the difficulties posed by COVID-19, China and the EU have sped up negotiations on a bilateral investment agreement, toward concluding the negotiations by the end of this year as agreed between leaders of the two sides. The two sides have been working together to open a “fast-track lane” for essential personnel on urgent visits in the areas of commerce, logistics, production and technological services. These actions demonstrate the commitment of both sides to promote economic, trade and investment cooperation and safeguard an open global economy.

3. China and the EU need to work together for greater progress of their relations under the new situation

COVID-19 will be temporary, compared with the enduring and long-term exchanges and cooperation between China and the EU and the friendship between the people. The virus has affected to some extent the normal exchanges and cooperation in various areas between the two sides this year, but it has in no way weakened the confidence and determination of both sides to take China-EU relations to a higher level in the new era. China has succeeded in containing the coronavirus at home, and more and more European countries are seeing positive signs of a flattening curve. However, the virus is still spreading in the global sphere. China and the EU need to think about how to pursue exchanges and cooperation while living with the coronavirus for some time to come. Based on mutual respect and mutual benefit and in a result-oriented and innovative approach, the two sides may work together on the following fronts.

China and the EU need to bring their cooperation against COVID-19 to a higher level. The virus remains a common challenge. To win this battle, the two sides need to further strengthen information sharing, and cooperate on the research and development of drugs and vaccines. We need to make the most of the air links and China-Europe freight trains to boost the shipping of medical supplies, and promote mutual recognition of standards for medical products. The two sides may consider holding a health ministers’ meeting to better cooperate on fighting the disease, supporting the WHO and helping developing countries to build stronger public health systems and response capabilities as part of joint effort in building a global community of health for all. As the COVID-19 situation eases, the two sides may enhance experience-sharing on effective and gradual resumption of work and production, and reopening of the economy.

China and the EU need to advance the important political agenda between the two sides in flexible ways. Technological advances have facilitated bilateral exchanges by providing new means of communication. Different kinds of “no-contact” communication, including video conferences, have flourished since the beginning of the outbreak. China and the EU are positively considering holding their high-level strategic and economic and trade dialogues via video-link to make policy plans for future China-EU relations. China is ready to maintain close communication with the EU institutions, the rotating chair for the second half of 2020 Germany, and Central and Eastern European countries on holding high-level exchanges at appropriate times, in conventional or virtual forms. This will send a positive message of China and the EU working together to meet challenges. Institutional exchanges between China and European countries, including the UK, France and Germany, will also be rolled out in a well-planned way. In addition, the two sides will jointly host events to celebrate the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and the Nordic countries, the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between China and Italy and the 40th anniversary of China-Ireland diplomatic relations.

China and the EU need to improve the overall plan and institutional safeguards for the bilateral relations. The China-EU 2025 strategic agenda for cooperation, as a medium-to long-term plan, will provide an institutional framework and a positive outlook for China-EU cooperation in the next five years. The two sides need to bear in mind both current and longer-term needs, keep to mutual respect and mutual accommodation, properly manage differences and seek the greatest common interests possible. Concluding the China-EU investment agreement by the end of this year remains the goal for both sides. Going forward, the two sides need to continue to demonstrate political will and take a pragmatic approach in speeding up the negotiations process and reach a high-level and balanced agreement as early as possible. 

Launching a feasibility study on a China-EU free trade agreement meets the interests of both sides and is keeping with the trend of globalization and free trade. The two sides need to put it on the agenda as early as possible. 

The China-EU Geographical Indications agreement is an important outcome of bilateral cooperation. It is also the first comprehensive, high-standard agreement on the protection of geographical indications that China entered into with a foreign party. The two sides will jointly implement it to deliver more benefits to people of the two sides.

China and the EU need to transform and upgrade bilateral practical cooperation. China’s economy has transitioned from a phase of rapid growth to one of high-quality development. The new EU leadership is also pushing forward its Green New Deal and digital strategy. The two sides may foster new highlights of cooperation in sustainable development, circular economy, climate change, biodiversity, carbon trading regime, scientific and technological innovation, and the digital economy in a bid to elevate China-EU cooperation to a higher level. The two sides need to further enhance synergy between the Belt and Road Initiative and European development strategies, such as the EU Strategy on Connecting Europe and Asia, push forward regional connectivity and facilitate the delivery of more projects. As major participants of international development cooperation, China and the EU may also discuss ways to enhance dialogue on international development and cooperation with third parties.

China and the EU need to advance cooperation on international affairs and global governance. Multilateralism and free trade are the common language of the two sides. COVID-19 has led to much reflection on globalization, yet inter-dependency is not outdated, and decoupling and insulation offer no real solutions. China and the EU should continue to work together to uphold an open global environment for cooperation, safeguard the multilateral trading system, ensure unimpeded trade and openness for investment, and preserve the stability of the global supply chain. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UN. China and the EU should make greater efforts to safeguard the authority of the UN, support multilateral institutions such as the UN, the WTO and the WHO in their work, support them in playing a bigger role in addressing global issues, and help foster a more fair and equitable global governance system. The two sides should also step up cooperation in areas such as tackling climate change, non-proliferation and sustainable development.

In a world that is going through the test of COVID-19, a sense of common stake and international cooperation are needed now more than ever. China and the EU need to work more closely with each other to advance the building of a new type of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind, and jointly make greater contributions to world peace and development. 

Qin Gang is Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China.