New EU plan eyes synergy with China
The EU is a global player. With its role being largely economic, it seeks to expand its presence in several regions of the world. Asia is among them. While the EU Global Strategy makes 19 references to Asia while discussing the prospect of a direct connection between European prosperity and Asian security, its content is rather vague. To provide more details and clear goals about the European approach vis-à-vis Asia, the European Commission and the High Representative for foreign affairs and security policy worked on preparing the relevant document.
As a result, a joint communication aimed at connecting Europe and Asia was recently presented in Brussels. This communication anticipates a deepening of ties in the coming years and sees the EU as a driver for connectivity. In particular, it links the desired connectivity to environmental standards, several types of networks ranging from infrastructure to energy and digital projects, as well as to international rules and regulations. Among other things, the EU hopes to acquire a level playing field for its companies in doing business in Asia. In this regard, the EU-China rail connection is discussed because “competitive neutrality would need to be addressed.”
China is not mentioned extensively in the joint communication. Beyond the railway connection, a reference is made to the EU-China Connectivity Platform. According to the document, Brussels also wants to pursue negotiations on an air transportation agreement with Beijing.
However, it is not a secret that the EU has decided to intensify its efforts and develop a connectivity strategy vis-à-vis Asia as it is concerned about Chinese intentions. The Belt and Road initiative has generated concern in some European capitals over Chinese companies getting the upper hand in key infrastructure works. The EU is therefore looking for ways to protect its economic interests.
In 2016, for instance, it did not recognize China's Market Economy Status. In September 2017, President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, launched a new European screening mechanism policy for Chinese state owned enterprises. Three months later the EU put in place new trade defense rules, targeting China at first “because the bulk of [its] anti-dumping activity concerns imports from that country.”
And now Brussels seeks to extend its own networks – such as the TransEuropean Transport Networks – toward Asia through bilateral and multilateral partnerships. By stepping up its strategy for connecting Europe and Asia it is hoping to create a complementary tool to the Belt and Road Initiative. Within this context, the European Commission has proposed to increase the EU external action budget to €123 billion ($142 billion) for the period 2021-2027.
Despite evident Sino-European differences, the new EU connectivity strategy in the making is not bad news for China. To start with, China retains its main advantage – its ability to use its vast resources and invest while rolling out the Belt and Road Initiative. Also, China is favorably viewing conditions leading to synergies. There are several examples of Chinese banks or companies collaborating with European ones. The website of the European Commission clearly states that the EU will continue to engage with China as the two sides share an interest in assuring their respective initiatives work. This is placed in the interest of the Chinese government heavily relying on multilateralism and sharing the vision of building a community of shared future for mankind.
The main difference between the Belt and Road Initiative and the new EU connectivity strategy is that the former has been already successful and is being continuously advancing, whereas the second remains largely theoretical. The European Parliament and Council will discuss the aforementioned communication and contribute to discussions on connectivity at the upcoming Asia-Europe Meeting Summit to be held in Brussels on October 18 and 19. Of course, the EU has a tendency to develop grand theories but often lacks the unity and gravitas to implement them at the international level.