EU-China trade talks: More than just economics

The in-principle agreement between the EU and China over the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) is significant both from an economic and geopolitical standpoint.

The first round of talks for EU-China CAI began in January 2014 (it was only in 2016 that there was some agreement between both sides on the broad contents of the CAI). Ties between the EU and China too had witnessed a sharp deterioration in the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic, and a number of EU member states, including Germany, Spain, and Italy, had tightened FDI regulations with an eye on preventing Chinese takeover of companies, especially in sensitive sectors like security.

In the month of September, while commenting on the possibility of the CAI, the European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen had stated: “China has to convince us that it’s worth having an investment agreement.”

Key contents of the agreement

The CAI will ensure a uniform arrangement for the whole of Europe with China. The key issues which will be addressed through the CAI include; resolution of disputes, greater transparency with regard to Chinese state subsidies, and curbs on China’s practice of asking foreign investors to share their technology in lieu for market access.

China has also agreed to address issues pertaining to sustainable development – such as environment and climate (China has agreed to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change). Beijing has also agreed to implement the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions.

According to an EU official, substantial commitments have been received from China on three issues: market access, level playing fields, and sustainable development. One of the strong backers of the CAI has been the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The deal will provide the EU greater access to China’s market. While the EU provides a significant amount of market access to China, the same can not be said of Beijing. Beijing is supposed to have made a firm commitment to the EU towards greater market access, especially in manufacturing (which makes up more than half of EU’s investment in China, including the automotive sector and basic materials).

Geopolitical implications

The deal has an important geopolitical dimension to it. While in the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic, ties with the Western world, including the EU, had witnessed a downward spiral, this deal is important in terms of symbolism. Chinese media publications have hailed the finalization of this agreement, emphasizing the point that the EU has adopted an independent stance vis-à-vis China and not followed Washington’s line.

Gao Jian, a scholar at Shanghai International Studies University, states:

Deeper China-EU ties will decrease possibility that the US will be able to hijack Europe for its anti-China chariot. Hopefully, the completion of the China-EU BIT talks will sound an alarm bell to the US administration and send this message: cooperation is the only way out for China-US relations.

If one were to look at US reactions, it is not only officials in the Trump Administration (which has a little over two weeks in office) who have been skeptical, but those from the incoming Biden Administration as well. Matt Pottinger, Trump’s Deputy National Security Advisor, has stated:

Leaders in both U.S. political parties and across the U.S. government are perplexed and stunned that the EU is moving towards a new investment treaty right on the eve of a new U.S. administration.

One of Biden’s key thrusts has been on working with the EU, and his pick for NSA chief, Jack Sullivan, had said that the US would like to work with the EU on common concerns vis-à-vis China’s ‘economic practices.’ Many observers argue that the decision of the EU could drive a wedge between the EU and the US, and this was one of Beijing’s main aims. It has also been argued that trilateral economic cooperation between Japan, the EU, and the US vis-à-vis China could also be impacted by the CAI.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the EU has sent out a clear message: that it would like to chart its own course given that it has its own economic interests, and not necessarily toe the US line vis-à-vis Beijing. For China, it is important in terms of messaging, as is evident from the tone of the Chinese media who are trying to dub this as a snub by Brussels to Washington DC. While US President-elect Biden has sought joint cooperation with the EU, the EU and the US will need to be on the same page with regard to dealing with China.

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