11.07.2023 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Chinese Prime Minister’s Trip to Europe

Chinese Prime Minister’s Trip to Europe

From June 19-23, Li Qiang, leader of the State Council (i.e., prime minister of China), who only took office in March of this year, made his first trip abroad. The focus of his first foreign tour was the European continent. Specifically, the two leading countries of the European Union, Germany and France, as well as the top leadership of the EU. The very fact of this event, along with a number of other similar events that have occurred in recent months, allows the author to make a few remarks about China’s foreign policy.

Its current form has been shaped over the past few years and was once again confirmed in principled political issues at the 20th CCP Congress last fall and in “economic and practical” terms at the parliamentary session held six months later (the so-called “Two Sessions”). Li Qiang was appointed to implement the latter.

Perhaps the most important expression used by the country’s leaders to describe this course of action is “openness.” Furthermore, openness for comprehensive engagement with all (notice this) participants in the current stage of the Great World Game. First of all, with the leaders.

But with each of them, the process of implementing a strategy of “openness” is very different. It is almost entirely determined by the peculiarities of the counter strategies of the partners. The failure of recent attempts to get out of the “clinch” in the system of relations between the two leading world powers, China and the United States, is mainly due to internal political turmoil of the latter, when the American president’s strange remark actually brought down all the positive things that his own foreign minister seemed to have achieved in Beijing.

Among other things, this is why it is natural for Beijing to seek not only to preserve but also to develop relations with most European countries. First of all, with the two leaders, that is, Germany and France, but also with the continent as a whole, whose representation is claimed by the EU, which occupies the first place in the list of trade and economic partners of Beijing. The category of “openness” itself implies primarily the trade and economic sphere of China’s relations with other countries.

However, both the EU as a whole and all its “elements,” which are its sovereign (?) countries, are in a state of diverse and complex relations with the United States. This is due to the complexity and “mosaic nature” of the general picture of Sino-European relations. The general process of bilateral contact at different levels serves the purpose of making it more definite.

The last act in it was the discussed trip of the Chinese prime minister, which began with a visit to Germany, that is, the leading country of the EU. It is this first stage that is of particular interest, not the least because the Sino-German relations reflect almost all the problems that are observed in Beijing’s relations with Europe in general. And not all of these problems are reduced to the factor of “American pressure.” The NEO has repeatedly noted the presence of a “proper European” specificity among them.

In the format of Sino-German relations, a bilateral Intergovernmental Consultative Council has been functioning for years to resolve them, which met for the seventh time during this visit by the Chinese prime minister. The event itself was preceded by individual meetings of the Chinese guest with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Olaf Scholz. In addition, round-table talks were held with the heads of leading German companies, and Li Qiang visited Bavaria, which is one of the economic “engines” of Germany.

As far as one can understand, the main question that the guest wanted the hosts to answer was to explain the content of the term “de-risking,” which has recently appeared in the statements of leading European politicians, as well as in some of the pan-European documents being prepared. The question is quite understandable, given that the term de-risking has recently been used by Beijing’s main geopolitical opponent, instead of the harsher term decoupling, which appeared in the US in 2020, where then for the first time they began to talk about the need for almost complete “disengagement” from the PRC.

Of course, the current US administration and President Biden insist that it is not about severing all economic relations with China, but rather about “reducing risks in critical technologies” related with guaranteeing national security. However, the distinction between “civilian” and “defense-applied” technology is arbitrary. Addressing the CEOs of leading German companies, Li Qiang suggested that they themselves take on the role of assessors of various risks when doing business in the PRC. And this appeal seems to have been understood by the addressees. It just takes getting politics out of the way.

Given Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s statements that his government has no intention of “decoupling” and that the “de-risking” measures should not be construed as “de-sinicization,” the high guest is unlikely to be able to predict how bilateral trade and economic relations will develop in the future.

The European Commission (the EU’s executive body) produced a document on “increasing economic security” just as Prime Minister Li Qiang’s visit was being discussed. According to the document, China is one of the sources of challenges. A month earlier in Stockholm, foreign Ministers of the member States of the Council of Europe decided to deal with “de-risking.” Specifically, the possibility of some restrictions on Chinese exports of solar panels for solar power plants and rare-earth metals was mentioned.

The Chinese prime minister then went to Paris, where he held talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, France’s Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne and President of the European Council Charles Michel, to clarify the prospects for relations with Europe. The public outcome of all these meetings was to say in general terms not only that there was no intention to create any obstacles to the comprehensive development of Sino-French and Sino-European relations in general, but on the contrary, the desire was declared to contribute to it in every possible way.

In both Berlin and Paris, the importance of maintaining regular official contacts was invariably stressed. In this regard, reference was made to recent visits to the PRC by top German and French officials, as well as senior EU officials.

It is worth noting that the Chinese prime minister attended the Summit for a New Global Financial Pact launched by the French president, held in Paris on June 22-23. Incidentally, on the margins of this event, Li had a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. However, the various related aspects of this meeting deserve a separate comment.

It is worth noting the increasingly obvious desire of leading European countries to position themselves autonomously in one way or another in relation to the growing problems on the global gaming table. One of the main ones is the so- called Global South issue. Recall that this very issue has been at the top of the agenda of a series of recent G7 events, active participants of which are Germany and France. Nevertheless, the French president felt it necessary to organize his own political platform to discuss roughly the same issues. And he will undoubtedly have the support of the PRC.

Finally, let us pay attention to the fact of renewed political activity of the Taiwanese leadership in Europe which was observed at about the same time when the Prime Minister of China was on the continent. In particular, it is manifested in the form of visits (apparently “private”) to Europe by ministers of the current Taiwanese government. Almost officially, they are accepted in the United Kingdom, while on the continent they are still refrained from doing so. Despite all kinds of tempting offers from Taiwan, for example, in the field of cooperation in the development of advanced (“semiconductor”) technology. Nevertheless, the Taiwan issue as a whole poses a serious challenge to the prospects for the development of Sino-European relations.

But, of course, this is not the only one, but one among many other issues, only partially raised in this text. They are resolved through various kinds of stakeholder contacts.


Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.

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