A trade pact with 14 other Asian nations. A promise to work with other countries to reduce CO2 emissions in order to combat global warming. Now an investment agreement with the European Union.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has been doing business for the past few weeks, pledging to position his country as an indispensable global leader, even after dealing with the coronavirus and increasing readiness to fight at home and abroad damaged his international standing.
In doing so, he underscored how difficult it will be for President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to forge a united front with allies against China’s authoritarian policies and trade practices, a key focus of the new administration’s plan to compete with Beijing and Beijing Review The increasing performance. The picture of Mr Xi, who joined in a conference call with Chancellor Angela Merkel from Germany, President Emmanuel Macron from France and other European heads of state and government on Wednesday to seal the agreement with the European Union, was also a stinging accusation against the efforts of the Trump administration to isolate China’s Communist Party state.
The deals show the leverage that Mr. Xi has due to the strength of the Chinese economy, which is now growing the fastest among major nations as the world continues to grapple with the pandemic.
Noah Barkin, a China expert in Berlin at the Rhodium Group, described the investment agreement as a “geopolitical coup for China”. Chinese companies already had better access to European markets – a core complaint in Europe – and thus gained only modest openings in manufacturing and the growing renewable energy market. The real achievement for China is diplomatic.
China only had to make modest concessions to overcome increasingly vocal concerns about China’s toughest policies, including crackdown on Hong Kong and the mass imprisonment and forced labor of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, western China.
China agreed, at least on paper, to relax many of the restrictions on European companies operating in China, open China to European banks, and comply with international standards on forced labor. The question is whether the commitments can be enforced.
For China’s critics, Mr. Xi’s steps were tactical – even cynical. However, they have also proven successful to an extent that seemed impossible just a few months ago, when several European countries became more open against China.
“It would be wrong to see these Chinese concessions as a major change in policy,” said Barkin. “In the past year we have seen how the party got the economy more firmly under control, doubled itself compared to state-owned companies and started a new boost for independence. That is the direction of the policy that Xi has set and it would be naive to believe that this deal will change that. “
Instead, China has shown again that it pays little or no diplomatic costs for abuses that violate European values. For example, Europeans signed the investment deal the day after the European Union publicly criticized a Chinese lawyer who reported on the first coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan city.
Australia faced a similar compromise in November when it signed the Asian Trade Pact, the regional comprehensive economic partnership, despite China waging a campaign of economic coercion against the country.
China’s tremendous economic and diplomatic influence, especially at this time of global crisis, means that countries feel they have no choice but to embark on it, regardless of their uneasiness about the nature of Mr. Xi’s harsh rule. The Asian trade pact, for example, although limited in scope, involves more people – 2.2 billion people – than any other.
“The values that we all hold in our Sunday speeches must be adhered to if we do not want to fall victim to a new systemic rival,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, a German member of the European Parliament who has spoken out against the European investment agreement with China .
“I think understanding is increasing,” he added, “but how to respond is not yet clear.”
China’s overtures will not end anger over its repressive policies, including the documented use of forced labor. However, they could appease China’s critics by seizing the lure of commercial profit in a country whose economy has recovered more from the pandemic than any other.
It would also undermine Mr Biden, who has already had four years of frustration in Europe to overcome President Trump’s standalone approach in facing China’s actions at home and abroad.
“I think now is a very good window for us,” said Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalization, a think tank in Beijing. He said China could serve as a role model and partner in the cooperation, and suggested that Europe could play a moderating role between China and the United States.
“Everyone has seen China’s resilience, vitality, tenacity and stability, especially through its fight against the epidemic,” he said.
Of course, Mr. Xi did not acknowledge that any policy by China has undermined global confidence. The officials have also not signaled a renewed review of their core policy.
The country’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, named after two jingoistic action films, shows no signs of indulgence. Australia is still exposed to China’s wrath, as is Canada over the US imprisonment of the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei.
“I think they are taking a selective approach to improving their image,” said Minxin Pei, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.
In the long term, it remains to be seen how significantly China’s pacts and commitments will improve its international image, which collapsed last year due to its cover-up due to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.
A poll by the Pew Research Center in October found that in 14 economically advanced countries, unfavorable attitudes toward China had reached their highest levels in more than a decade. A median of 78 percent of respondents said they had little or no confidence that Mr. Xi would do the right thing in world affairs. (An advantage for Mr. Xi: 89 percent felt the same way about Mr. Trump.)
China’s economic recovery has nevertheless given Mr. Xi a diplomatic opening, and he has seized it. Mr. Xi’s pledges to accelerate China’s carbon emissions reduction, which he began in September, have received international praise, even if the government is still unsure of how to wean itself off coal and other highly polluting industries.
At around the same time, Mr. Xi showed renewed interest in finalizing discussions on the seven-year European investment agreement. Just months earlier, a deal seemed as good as dead in the face of mounting hostility towards China in Europe. “There are real differences and we are not going to document them,” said Charles Michel, President of the European Council, in September.
A breakthrough came after the American presidential election. Mr Trump showed contempt for America’s traditional allies in Europe and Asia, but Mr Biden has pledged to form a coalition to meet China’s economic, diplomatic and military challenges.
China clearly foresaw the potential threat.
Just two weeks after the election, China signed the regional comprehensive economic partnership with the 14 other Asian nations. In early December, after phone calls with Ms. Merkel and Mr. Macron, Mr. Xi urged that the investment agreement be concluded with the Europeans.
The prospect raised alarms in both Europe and the United States. Mr Biden’s new National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, went on Twitter to insist that Europe should wait for consultations with the new government first – to no avail.
Critics said the deal would tie Europe’s economy even closer to China’s, helping Beijing build economic power and divert external pressure to open up its party-state economy.
They said the agreement did not do enough to address China’s human rights abuses, including labor rights. The promise that China’s negotiators have drawn on this issue to “make continued and sustained efforts” to ratify two international conventions on forced labor requires that China act in good faith. Critics have been quick to point out that China has not kept all of the promises it made when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.
The investment agreement has to be ratified by the European Parliament before it can enter into force and there is considerable opposition that it could derail. At the moment, Chinese officials are celebrating a deal that Mr. Xi described as “balanced, of high standard and mutually beneficial.”
“The Chinese leadership is concerned about a transatlantic front, a multinational front, and I think they are ready to make tactical concessions to get the Europeans on board,” said Barkin of the Rhodium Group. “You were very smart.”
Claire Fu contributed to the research.