European Cooperation with China Continues under the Weight of Western Ethical Obligations

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Whether it is the treatment of the Uyghur people or the security laws in Hong Kong, China has a bad track record with human rights making itself unpopular on the European continent. Yet despite this, the European Union (EU) ended the year by sealing the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment to protect its economic interest. However, with China resisting the binding commitments on labour rights, the EU is appearing schizophrenic in this balancing act between its values and its interests.

China has repeatedly denied any wrongful action despite the frightful scenes of labour camps and unlawful imprisonment of people such as the Uyghur people in Xinjiang. On 12 December 2020 in her speech at the World Leader for Peace and Security Award, President Von der Leyen highlighted the EU’s desire to embrace innovation, entrepreneurship and growth, referencing China’s practices as the antonym of the European way. Referring to China as the moral antipode to the EU, Von der Leyen made clear that the EU will not compromise its values for the purpose of growth, stating that what “sets Europe apart from competitors is the fact that our values come first. Human beings come first” (Speech).

Despite repeatedly reaffirming their objection towards Chinese practices, it remains a fact that China is a key economic partner for the EU and it is in their interest to pursue a growing and more level playing field. In investment terms, this agreement is considered a success because it significantly increases market access for European investors in China, but perhaps it is only a small step in the right direction.

German Chancellor, Merkel, was one of the spearheads in pushing for this deal. Not surprising considering China is Germany’s top import partner and third-biggest export partner and the rest of Europe is following suit. In the Eastern countries such as Serbia, they are attempting to catch up in proportion to the country’s GDP. While Serbia still depends far more on Germany than China, in terms of imports which make up almost 13% of all their imports compared to the 4.58% of Chinese imports, the growing economic cooperation between Eastern European countries and China is impacting the opinions of China.

The EU might have grown comfortable standing on the moral high ground, embracing its diversity but also benefiting from its socio-economic advantages that its Eastern neighbours cannot afford to compromise on. In the case of the Balkan region, the counties are enthralled not only by what Russia can offer, financially and otherwise, but what a juggernaut like China can provide too. While Europeans as a whole will reluctantly overlook violations of human rights, they are still interested in development — preferably sustainable, but when in need that becomes subject to loose interpretation.

Nevertheless, the European Commission stands strong in rhetoric and its criticisms. European politicians are often outspoken against political and economic alliances with China, such as French MEP Glucksmann who stated that the deal “mocks the concentration camps and enslavement of a people”, despite the fact that the agreement commits China to increase efforts on banning forced labour. In the big picture, China’s practices are in fundamental opposition to European values. The unsurprisingly unpopular opinions that have been on the rise in the West since the start of the coronavirus outbreak only speak to this polarity.

Europe does not wish to isolate itself from the world in the way that the Trump administration has taken steps back in its role on the world stage — a move which China has taken advantage of in their increased presence at the WHO and global reach. Due to the poor handling of the pandemic by the Trump administration, there is even lower faith in the US than there is in China. While Europeans are willing to admit that China, as a leading economic power, did a better job at dealing with the pandemic than its counterpart in the West, it still remains increasingly unpopular in its overall reputation.

There are hopes that the Biden administration would stand with the EU on human rights issues in China, giving the west more leverage. The national security advisor to Biden, Jake Sullivan already commented on the deal expressing concerns about China’s practices and the administration expressed concern over the EU-China agreement. The situation in Xinjiang caught the attention of many after videos went viral of China’s ambassador publicly denying the abuse of the Uyghur people despite the overwhelmingly convincing evidence presented. The European Parliament reacted by adopting the resolution on the forced labour and the situation of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, calling to action the Chinese government on the situation in the region.

As the EU doubles down on its principles, on one hand, it continues to engage with China to serve its own economic interests. Finalising this agreement quickly before the change of administration in the USA is a testimony to Europe’s thirst for growth and its willingness to play an elegantly hypocritical balancing act between securing its interests and its place in the global landscape while protecting and promoting its values and holding tight to their moral high ground.

Founder of levol & Senior Research Fellow for EU and Balkan Region at SPIPA: Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Area

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