EU's misperception of China a threat to relations
Fu Cong, China's ambassador to the European Union, hit the nail on Tuesday when he told a forum in Brussels that for most Chinese including himself, understanding EU's "holy trinity" of defining China as a cooperation partner, economic competitor and systemic rival is a "mind-bogging exercise".
It has baffled me, too, since the definition was first introduced in the EU's joint communication on March 12, 2019, four months after I took up my new job in Brussels. I arrived in Brussels believing that China and the EU had a comprehensive strategic partnership.
The EU argued that China is a systemic rival because it does not share EU's values, referring largely to their different political systems. But such differences have existed since they established diplomatic ties in 1975 and the differences were much larger in those years. Despite the differences, both sides still agreed in 2003 to upgrade the bilateral relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership.
Those differences certainly have not prevented China and the EU from developing a close relationship, such as by becoming each other's major trade partner, with bilateral trade reaching $847 billion in 2022. The relationship has gone far beyond trade and investment to include a wide range of people-to-people exchanges.
Increased and closer cooperation and exchanges have helped both sides better understand each other and have increased their capacity to tackle the differences, whether in trade and investment or human rights.
Unlike some countries, China does not export ideology or revolution. Its long-standing foreign policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries is well-known and a sharp contrast to the interventionist US foreign policy. In fact, no other major country could probably claim the same track record as China, a country which has not been involved in any war for at least 44 years.
Fu argued that if the EU forged ties based on shared values, then the EU would have a lot of rivals because many countries from Asia and Africa to the Middle East and Latin America do not see eye to eye with Europe in terms of values.
That is true when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the Russia-Ukraine conflict, both of which have increasingly become a divisive issue of the West vs the rest, especially the Global South.
However, we have not seen the EU declaring those countries as "systemic rivals". On the contrary, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen keeps calling Vietnam a "strong partner" and "important cooperation partner" of the EU and she has never described or implied Vietnam as a systemic rival despite the fact that Vietnam and China have similar political systems.
Under its "systemic rival" misperception, the EU has taken many measures toward its self-fulfilled prophecy by tightening screening for Chinese investors and drafting legislations targeting Chinese companies without naming them.
The EU's crackdown on Huawei 5G under the US pressure and its recent labeling of Huawei as a high risk vendor is a typical example. The European Commission's recent launch of anti-subsidy investigation into Chinese electric vehicles and its threat for similar probes into Chinese wind turbines, steel products are also driven by such misperception.
The EU's de-risking strategy, including its proposed Critical Raw Materials Act, is also based on such misperception and paranoia. China has never threatened to cut off supplies to the EU. But if the EU thought that de-risking means that the EU should prepare itself for all worst case scenarios, then the EU might want to increase its capacity for making shoes, toys and all kind of electronics now made in China. The list is very long and the cost will defy comparative advantages.
The EU's contradictory definition has inflicted severe harms on China-EU bilateral relations. The EU is shooting itself in the foot, if not the stomach or chest.
The author is chief of China Daily EU Bureau based in Brussels. firstname.lastname@example.org