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China to Europe: Move Over and Shut Up


In an escalating fight between China and the EU over everything from wine to solar panels, Beijing has resorted to talking tough in public: state-run newspapers have published angry editorials exhorting Europeans to recognize their decline and threatening strong action if Brussels doesn’t back down. The Financial Times has the story:

“The change of the times and the shifts of power have failed to change the condescending attitude of some Europeans,” People’s Daily, the ruling Communist party’s mouthpiece, said on Thursday. “China doesn’t want a trade war, but trade protectionism cannot but trigger a counterattack.” […]

The EU has been telling the world for decades that it is something new in the world: a global economic power, reliant on the attraction of its social model for its influence. This explains why the long running economic crisis is so devastating for the EU. What happens to an economic power if its economy is in the tank? What happens to a power that depends on the attraction of its social model if the world sees that model as dysfunctional and decaying? The New York Times paints a very bleak picture:

[T]he total value of foreign direct investment to Europe, including Britain and Eastern Europe, plunged by 36 percent to $293.5 billion — double the decline worldwide. Foreign businesses, in other words, remained deeply cautious about investing in Europe’s future.

Even if the euro zone economy does stop declining, that does not mean it will grow. It could simply hit bottom and stay there.

Seeing all this, China is losing respect for the Continent. Europe is divided: Germany is fighting Brussels, the economy is a mess, and the EU dream appears in doubt.

The Chinese editorialists have a point that the EU’s propensity to lecture is waxing even as Europe’s world position declines. The legacy of colonial rule still rankles in Asia, and Europeans would be very foolish if they forget that. (Europe should also remember, however, that sharp, barking diplomacy is a tool China is fond of using to see if it can get what it wants on the cheap.)

As they hunker down against the blast of harsh Chinese rhetoric and policy, Europeans might want to talk to the Australians and many others in Asia who have weathered similar typhoons. One important piece of advice they would likely share: don’t cave. As long as harsh rhetoric and peremptory demands work, the Chinese will keep using them. Generally speaking, when rebuffed, they return to more realistic negotiating tactics.

Whatever happens, the EU is going to have to give up on some dearly held dreams of reshaping the world order from a position of privilege and power. Europe is no longer the center of world politics or the world economy, and Asia in particular is simply not very interested in European ideas about how the world should be run. President Xi is meeting President Obama this weekend to ask, in effect, for the United States to switch from Europe to China as its chief global sidekick.

This is the lens through which the Chinese see their trade problems with Europe. Perhaps especially because it knows that Europe’s own deep divisions on these issues make Brussels vulnerable to Chinese pressure, Beijing is bent on forcing Europe to make some kind of public acknowledgment of its changed status. As Chen Zhimin, a professor specializing in EU diplomacy at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the FT: “If the EU thinks that it can safeguard its interests through sanctions, it will have to realise that it is no longer facing the China of the past.”

[Image of downtown Beijing courtesy Wikimedia]

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  • Anthony

    “Beijing is bent on forcing Europe to make some kind of public acknowledgement of its changed status.” From Pacific point of view (i.e. China’s), that is indeed a reality.

  • lukelea

    Europe is no longer the center of world politics or the world economy

    True, but that is no reason to bad mouth our most reliable set of allies who, collectively, have a bigger GDP and in many countries a higher standard of living than the average American. It is the West, not Europe, and not the US, that shares the values that make a new international civilization possible. We need to work together to establish and enforce certain norms of civilized behavior in China as a condition for doing business with us. There is no other way. We may be the center of world power but that doesn’t mean we have enough to do the job. Gloating is so ugly!

    • Alexander Scipio

      If europe were a “reliable ally” they woulnd’t demand that we spend our tax dollars defending them, particularly as they trash our social model. One or the other, but not both. If you’re going to trash our decisions, don’t expect us to pay your way for you. Either way, these are not hallmaks of a “reliable ally.” A dependent pensioner, perhaps, but an ally? Nope.

      • lukelea

        I agree Europe hasn’t paid its fair share for defense.

  • Pete

    Mead, you hobnob with the Euro-elite.

    Tell us, do they actually believe that Europe is a trend setter for the world.

    To me, it seems that China is telling Europe what the U.S. is too polite to say.

  • Alexander Scipio

    “Foreign businesses, in other words, remained deeply cautious about investing in Europe’s future.”

    It isn’t just foriegn businesses who are “deeply cautious” about europe’s future. Europeans themselves are not only “cautious” about their future – they, provably, do not believe in it. European nations have not had above-replacement fertility (or even replacement: 2.1) for three gnerations – since the war. If european CITIZENS don’t believe in the future enough to populate it, why would ANY company or investor believe in that future?

  • Nick Bidler

    Well, it’s finally happening: the E.U.’s posture as an Economic Superpower is going to be called as a bluff. Whether it succeeds or fails, nobody is walking away from this happy.

    If Chinese trade policy attempts to hit the whole of the E.U., I can see it driving Europe closer together or further apart. The latter seems the more likely consequence.

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