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March 30, 2023

Charm tour by PM Wen

In the intricate and seductive Chinese diplomatic calligraphy, polished during several millennia, absolutely no gesture is without meaning, no official assertion is without a precise target and no visit, especially one by such a high-ranking official, to a different geographic area is not without a specific connotation. Regarding from this particular perspective, last week’s tour to Europe by Chinese Prime-Minister Wen Joabao, including three states, tells volumes on how his huge country sees the word today, as well as its place and the place of the old continent in it.

Of course that this column is not at all intended to cover the multitude of meanings of this particular trip the Chinese PM took to Hungary, Great Britain and Germany during June 23-27. I will, however, only insist on the way in which China is signalling its approach to ‘the Europe dossier’ in the future, Beijing’s immediate and more remote interests in the European Union and the priority given by it to the old continent today and tomorrow.

There are, no doubt, more vectors of bilateral relations, such as co-operation in major international security matters, as well as with regard to some of the most prominent issues preoccupying the word these days (global warming, mass destruction weapon proliferation and the global geo-political resettlement, just to name a few), but those will be left to another occasion.

The first thing is the signals China is sending in Europe’s way about the bilateral relations. The release from prison of two Chinese dissidents before the PM’s European tour naturally had its meaning in respect of the human rights issues – one of the questions of substance in Europe’s stance on mutual relations. China is therefore making its position more flexible, pursuing the interest of stronger mutual relations. This major meaning cannot escape the grasp of European politicians, in spite of voices having read into this subtle move a tactical manoeuvre, like an application for a safe-conduct by Beijing, in exchange for promising to carry on down the same line in the interest of human rights.

Knowing that some high value commercial agreements were concluded during the trip, I would add that 30 per cent of China’s financial reserves are in euro. Also knowing Beijing’s willingness to support European states in difficulty by purchasing government bonds, I would also say that the great Asian power is crucially interested in Europe’s health and in a consolidated EU. That was another strong signal sent by the Chinese PM and it is but clear that this is a trend to last on a medium to long term.

China’s immediate and more remote interests in Europe become clear from the signals sent, that are described above. The consolidation of the EU, currently threatened as an organisation by the euro crisis and states’ sovereign debts, is of interest to China, probably for geo-political considerations. However, in this framework, one important note to be made is that the economic, therefore also political stability of Eastern Europe (see the visit to Hungary, where agreements worth over EUR 1 bln were signed) is one of the priorities of Beijing’s European policy. The over EUR 2 bln worth of agreements signed in the UK by the Chinese PM suggest that the EU unity, grounded on economic prosperity, is among China’s priorities for the more remote future. I believe one should go past the cliché of seeing the big contracts signed by China as an expression of a borderless economic appetite, but more, in this particular case, as an elaborated calculation of systemic equilibrium and the prospects of a comprehensive strategic partnership in that respect. All the more so the agreements concluded with Germany, a country which is, in fact, the corner stone of the durability and health of the EU, should be read in the same key. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the two states were going to increase annual trade to EUR 200 bln by 2015 from EUR 130 bln in 2010, Chinese PM Wen expressed hope that Germany and China would manage to double the volume of bilateral trade over the following five years. More than that, he went to Germany – a country that had manifested a certain amount of resistance to rushed interventions in support of the euro, where he said: ‘If Europe has problems, we will lend a helping hand.’ Moreover, he said that, should it become necessary, China was ready to start buying the required amount of sovereign bonds from states in the euro-zone, which is practically a commitment to strongly support the EU in its effort to overcome the current crisis. And that says a lot about China’s immediate and future interests in Europe, while also dismantling all speculation on its purely commercial and economic interest in the future of the old continent. Naturally, it is known that China realises that an economic and financial chaos in Europe would also hurt it, but, even so, these latest moves are very eloquent as to the increasingly responsible Chinese policy within the global systemic fluidity.

Last, what is the priority that Beijing gives Europe in its global policy? All of the above, read in this particular key of interpretation of Wen’s five-day visit to Europe, shows that the old continent has acquired a position of top priority in the Chinese global policy. Whether the new condition has been imposed by ‘Arab Spring’ developments with a  major impact on Europe but where China pursues one major interest – for it opens ‘gates’ other than the major one of Africa – or by other calculations of global strategy in Beijing is harder to decipher. For instance, German business daily Handelsblatt was stating that the Chinese strategy was to surround itself by a circle or weaker allies in order to prevent the formation of a very strong adverse coalition. In Germany’s case – the newspaper continues – China is seeking to use Germany’s autonomous position (see Libya or similar episodes) in NATO, which would give Beijing a number of opportunities.

However, we do not believe that this is necessarily the strategic calculation of Beijing regarding Europe in general and Germany in particular.

The Chinese PM’s visit to Europe is, in our view, a strong signal that Beijing realises that, in the 21st century world, the EU will be an element of system stability of prime importance. The position comes from the prime-minister of a state that has just become the world’s second biggest economy as a volume, with many anticipating it will move up to the first position very soon. A country about which another German newspaper, (Süddeutsche Zeitung), was writing: ‘Whether the American 20th century will now be followed by the Chinese 21st century is still uncertain. But its economic power, demographics and fairly stable authoritarianism suggest that it will.’

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