Europe-China studies through CHERN: some critical thoughts 
By: Miguel Otero Iglesias (Elcano)

On the 7-8 of September, I had the honour to be in Amsterdam, invited by Dr. Nana de Graaff, to perform as a “critical observer” during the CHERN (China in Europe Research Network) conference. The gathering was funded by the EU´s COST Programme. EU money well spent, I dare to say.

I witnessed two intense days of academic and policy-oriented exchanges on Europe-China relations, and it was truly refreshing to do so in an environment not dominated by “China-bashing” or “China-hostile” attitudes and with the nuances and balanced approaches that you expect from a gathering of experts of this calibre.

The title of the conference was “China-Europe: Reconnecting in an era of Competition and Rivalry?” and this pretty much condensed the spirit of the conference. The focus was on how and why to reconnect (and it was great to have a significant number of Chinese scholars in the room too), but there was an obvious sense that this would not be easy in the current geopolitical climate.

I was asked, along with Una Alexsandra Berzina-Cerenkova, Lynda Hardman and Jeffrey Henderson, to intervene in the final panel and these were my “critical” remarks to the participants. I divided them into five sections. 1) China; 2) Europe; 3) China-Europe; 4) the ideational and the material; and 5) The Gaps. Here is the reproduction in written form:

On China:

I highlighted, or better put, I asked: how much do we really know about China? How much do we get to know about China in the current climate of biased information from Western media outlets and Chinese official obscurity and censorship? In this climate, doing fieldwork is more important than ever. But is it safe? Is it possible?

Another aspect. During those two days, many differentiated between the Party and the People of China. Can we make such a distinction? Is it ontologically, epistemologically, and methodologically helpful? I have my doubts. The embeddedness of the CPC in Chinese society might be deeper than assumed, even by experts.

Finally, there was a sense that despite the hostility of the West, especially from the US, first with Trump and now with Biden, with the Trade and Tech Wars, China has reacted relatively restrained. But if we keep building on this pressure, will it overreact at some point? Will the pressure reach a tipping point? Will there be an explosion? Taiwan comes to mind.

On Europe:

There is a certain consensus among academics and policymakers that what differentiates Europe from the US in its approach toward China is that it is not in the business of stopping its development. Unlike the US, Europe – and the EU in particular – does not compete for world supremacy with China.

Where there is no such consensus is whether the EU should aim to become a third pole in the global order. So, the question is not only whether we have the capacities and political will to achieve this goal but rather whether it is desirable at all. Here, of course, there are serious differences between for instance the West and the East of the EU. Not everyone buys into the idea of aiming for strategic autonomy.

More consensus exists in producing a better mapping of Europe-China relations. What are our interdependencies and dependencies? In all fields, trade and investment, but also science and technology and media and culture. Until we have such a mapping, can we be serious about effective de-risking and in turn be more strategic in our actions? That is also valid for scientific exchanges. Every university or think tank should seriously think about what is to be gained and lost from deeper collaboration with its Chinese counterparts.

On China-Europe relations:

“De-risking” is the buzzword of the time, but it is easier said than done. China is the second biggest economy in the world and in many sectors the most important market, and an indispensable actor in global governance. The auto industry and the arrival of Chinese EVs to the Old Continent will be a good test case of how de-risking might work in practice. For Prof. Kerry Brown, the keynote speaker of the conference, the trinity of seeing China as a partner, competitor and systemic rival is incoherent and inconsistent. True, but perhaps it is the best framework to deal with the multiple contradictions and trade-offs we face in our bilateral relationship.

Ironically, in the conference many participants pointed out that “we are becoming more Chinese”. We have securitised our trade and foreign policy, we are keen now to develop our own industrial policy, we are not afraid to subsidise and protect, if necessary, our firms and we are starting to become paranoid about the foreign intrusion and/or influence of external (Chinese) actors in our political and social life. But do we have a reverse movement too? Are the Chinese becoming more Western, more European? Perhaps not.

Finally, one big topic at this conference was the concept of race. Are we so critical, suspicious of the Chinese because they are not white? Most participants agreed that “racism” plays a big role in seeing China as a bigger threat than it is. But, as one speaker pointed out, if this is the case, why do we not speak about it in public? On this, I recommend Shane Weller´s book The Idea of Europe, where he explains that, already, the ancient Greeks and Romans saw the Chinese “other” as too submissive and collectivist and, therefore, inferior to us. Is this still the case?

On the ideational and material:

A big discussion at the conference was around what triggered the EU´s tougher approach toward China. Was it the arrival of Xi Jinping and the change of the Constitution? The crackdown in Hong Kong? The “education camps” in Xinjiang? The militarisation of the South China Sea? The encirclement of Taiwan? The pressure from the US, first with Trump and now with Biden? The influence of Anglo-American media? Covid-19? The internal repression? Or all of the above? How much is this change of attitude material and how much ideational? Was there a tipping point? Or was there an accumulation of circumstances? I would say that one of the tipping points was the purchase of Kuka by Midea, which unleashed a change of attitude in Berlin, but I guess there are many different perspectives on this.

Another issue was the possible gap between the political discourse and debate, now very much focused on economic security and de-risking vis-à-vis China, and the business reality on the ground. How many companies are really diversifying out of China? Is this process even feasible? It was mentioned that in the fields of cutting-edge technology, transnational value chains are more needed because of specific specialisation. China plays a big role there, and it is precisely in these frontier fields of knowledge that the White House wants to decouple the most. Is that smart?

Finally, there is the issue of the reification of suspicion. If the Europeans and Chinese see the other as untrustworthy because the other is “communist and authoritarian” or “Westerner influenced by the US and wants to keep China down”, then the possibilities of cooperation are massively reduced. That is increasingly the dynamic we are in, and it seems difficult to break with this downward spiral. Recently, a Chinese think tanker asked me how I would assess the warmth of EU-China relations considering 0 as very cold and 10 as very hot. I said 5. We have moved from 7 or 8 to 5 in the past ten years, and the trend is downward.

On the gaps:

One of the big questions for the Europeans is not only to decide whether and how to engage more with China in the next decade but also how this will be shaped by our relationship with the so-called Global South, although I prefer to call it the “Plural South”. China has made major inroads there and instead of trying to reduce its influence via the Global Gateway (or at least that is how it is often presented), we need a more positive agenda. Less lecturing and preaching, avoid double standards, and give more agency (ask them what they need) to the Plural South.

A political economy perspective is also useful to understand EU-China relations better. It is important to remember Susan Strange´s core international political economy question: Cui bono? Who benefits from increased tension between China and the West? Certain countries more than others? The public or the private sector? Small or big businesses? The defence industry? The workers or the investors? The producers or the consumers? The plural south as whole or certain parts more than others? Are we all losers?

Final thought. How do we assimilate and distillate the nuances and academic sophistication that I witnessed during the CHERN conference into practical and convincing policy advice in a time where there is not much room for shades of grey? That is not only a big task for think tankers but also for pure academics with a sense of social purpose. Furthermore, in order to influence public opinion, do we engage with the media? Or do we create our own channels of communication? Are we able to reach the wider public? In the current geopolitical context, our expertise is highly demanded. This is a great professional opportunity, but also a big responsibility.

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