President China has welcomed its new status as the European Union’s most important trading partner, another achievement of the rapidly emerging People’s Republic, whose rise in the international order has caused concern and criticism from the United States and, to a certain extent, other Western powers.
Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Hua Chunying, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, welcomed the latest EU trade figures released last month as “good news for both China and the EU”.
Statistics shared by the EU’s official European statistics office with Washington Newsday showed that the volume of trade between China and the EU from January to September this year was 425.5 billion euros or about 516.8 billion dollars, overtaking the US and the EU with 412.5 billion euros or about 501 billion dollars from the same first three quarters of 2020.
The decisive month was July. A report on the figures briefly went into detail.
“In the first nine months of 2020, China was the most important partner for the EU,” it said. “This result is due to an increase in imports (+4.5%) with unchanged exports. At the same time, trade with the United States showed a significant decline in both imports (-11.4%) and exports (-10.0%)”.
Back in Beijing, Hua saw the shift as a sign of robust relations between China and Europe and noted that the EU has been China’s largest trading partner for years, with room for even greater development.
“As important trading partners, China and the EU are highly complementary in their economies and have enormous potential in broad areas of cooperation,” Hua said.
The fluctuation is taking place at a difficult time for the global economy, which was hit by the COVID 19 pandemic. The disease was first seen in China, but the country experienced an early recovery, allowing it to quickly resume trading while the disease raged in other countries, particularly in the West and worst of all in the United States, where record numbers of infections and deaths continue to be recorded daily.
Both China and the United States made a point of providing global assistance to demonstrate their status on the international stage, sometimes belittling each other’s position.
However, as European countries have also been hard hit by a disease that has led to national embargoes and various disruptions to daily life, Hua said that recent trade figures “fully demonstrate the resilience and potential of China-EU economic and trade relations”.
She argued that this was a good omen for both.
“The rapid growth of China-EU trade has greatly enhanced socio-economic development and improved the well-being of people on both sides,” Hua said.
She pointed out how China and the EU signed the China-EU Geographical Indication Agreement in September, the last year included in the relevant EU trade figures, to promote mutual agricultural trade, and how discussions are progressing on how to encourage additional investment in order to “take economic and trade cooperation between China and the EU to new heights”.
This model of cooperation with China applies not only to Europe but to the whole world, he said.
“In the future, China will expand its openness and offer more opportunities to the EU and other countries, while promoting a new development paradigm,” Hua said. “We also hope that the EU will keep its trade and investment market open and work with China to maintain economic globalization and an open and free environment for trade and investment”.
The pace at which China has reclaimed its title as the world’s largest economy from the 19th century has caused consternation among many in the West. Currently, China ranks second, while it was only fifth when the Chinese Communist Party took power in the wake of World War II and the civil war with nationalist forces now exiled to Taiwan, and is expected to top the list in about 10 years.
In Europe, countries such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom – which has formally left the EU – have accused China of violations in the areas of business, human rights and geopolitical disputes in Asia.
But Paris and Berlin have also had a difficult relationship with Washington under President Donald Trump, who took a combative stance towards Beijing and tried to redefine the transatlantic relationship, including with European allies. As the current government will leave office next month, the EU has already begun to formulate a new strategy for cooperation with President-elect Joe Biden.
The European Commission on Wednesday published an 11-page document entitled “A New EU-US Agenda for Global Change”. The report sets out a framework that is intended to be “the linchpin of a new global alliance of like-minded partners”.
The strategy explicitly mentions China as “a negotiating partner for cooperation, an economic competitor and a systemic rival”.
And while it calls for measures against the ever more powerful Beijing, the EU also offered a rebuke of the Trump administration’s actions, which triggered a trade war that shook the international market.
“As open democratic societies and market economies, the EU and the US agree on the strategic challenge posed by China’s growing international assertiveness,” the report said, “even if we do not always agree on the best way to solve this problem.
Biden said little about his likely China strategy, but in an interview with the New York Times, also published on Wednesday, he suggested that no sudden decisions should be taken in the short term, including on his predecessor’s trade policy towards China.
“I will not take immediate action, and the same goes for tariffs,” Biden told The Times. “I will not prejudge my options,” Biden told The Times.
Rather, he would strive to develop “a coherent strategy” alongside the US allies with whom he wanted to “get us back on the same page” in the first weeks of his term.
The day after the publication of the report and the interview with Biden, the Communist Party of China-led “Global Times” published an editorial expressing skepticism about the ability of the U.S. and the EU to develop a common approach to fighting China because of their different positions and priorities.
“Europe may be reluctant to promote a new Western unity with the U.S. at its center and on the basis of the Trump administration’s radical policy towards China. New frictions will be inevitable,” the article said. “But if, on the other hand, Europe is allowed to define the unity of the West and the US makes fewer decisions and allocates more resources, Washington will never accept this”.
The publication ultimately rejected the concept of a “so-called China challenge and the threat emanating from China” as “largely imaginary”.
But this threat seems as real as ever in political circles in Washington, where the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission published a 575-page report on the challenges facing relations between the two countries as part of its annual review submitted to Congress. The report’s authors said that for the first time in the Commission’s two-decade history, this year’s edition focused on the fact that China is “overtaking” the United States, not “catching up” with it.
The report identified Europe as one of the key arenas in which China wanted to expand its influence.
As for Hua, in response to a long list of accusations of economic and political misconduct by China in comments sent to Newsday from the Beijing embassy in Washington, she railed against a commission that, as she argued on Thursday, “has always been ideologically biased against China” and claimed that “there is no factual basis for the denigration and slander of China in various reports it has produced.