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View from abroad: China — Europe’s new bestie

Updated March 22, 2014
China's premier Li Keqiang. — File Photo
China's premier Li Keqiang. — File Photo

Guess who’s coming to dinner? US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be making their way to Brussels for — separate — high-level summits and sumptuous banquets in the coming weeks following their participation in the nuclear security summit in The Hague.

The sense of anticipation and excitement in Europe is strong. The US is a long-standing EU ally, the guarantor par excellence of European security and the go-to power when things go wrong on the global stage and Europe can’t cope with the pressure.

There is in addition, the Obama factor. Although many Europeans may not be as starry-eyed about the US president as they used to be, the charismatic and articulate Obama can still charm and court EU leaders when he wants to.

French President Francois Hollande, Britain’s David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are vying with each other to be America’s best friend.

And yet. Truth be told, Obama’s star is fading fast in Europe. Europeans are not impressed with stories of NSA surveillance of their leaders, America’s use of drones and the country’s gun culture.

Obama is increasingly seen as a weak president — albeit one who can talk the talk. But while they admire his rhetoric, Europeans have no illusions about his ability to turn talk into action.

China, in contrast, is on a roll and riding high. There’s no doubt: it’s the Chinese president who is prompting the most interest and excitement in Europe and among Europeans.

Certainly, Europeans and Chinese disagree over human rights, Tibet, the treatment of dissidents and freedom of expression.

In contrast to China, the US is part of “Western civilisation”, a like-minded nation with which Europe can share its joys and fears.

In the ongoing crisis over Ukraine, Washington and Brussels consulted closely with each other before imposing visa bans and a freeze on financial assets on key Russian personalities.

The EU and the US are working together to defuse nuclear tensions with Iraq and end the humanitarian tragedy in Syria.

Both are also close partners in Afghanistan, deploying simultaneously their hard and soft power to try and stabilise the war-ravaged country and ensure fair and free elections.

The recent decision to launch talks on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is meant not only to create jobs and generate growth on both sides of the Atlantic but also to make sure that the “West” can withstand the growing might of the global newcomers.

Take a closer look, however, and it’s clear that for all the common European and American values and aspirations, the transatlantic relationship is nowhere as exciting as Europe’s rapidly expanding connection with Asia’s most dynamic economic powerhouse.

There’s no doubt: as Europeans view the changing global landscape, it’s China, not America, which generates the most attention.

China’s is constantly in the headlines, its leaders subject to intense scrutiny, their every word, action and policy analysed endlessly.

Where once the focus was on the American Dream and all it stood for in terms of personal advancement and achievement, analysts now spend hours dissecting all facets of Xi’s “Chinese Dream”.

China is one of Europe’s top markets, with a dynamic middle class, increasing affluence and a growing appetite for European goods.

President Xi will use his European tour to push for a stronger global Chinese diplomatic presence. But before he talks to Europeans, the Chinese leader will meet Obama on the sidelines of the nuclear safety summit in The Hague.

The crisis in Ukraine is expected to figure high in Xi’s talks with Obama, with China urging all parties involved to exercise restraint to alleviate tension. Beijing abstained from voting on a proposed UN Security Council resolution that condemned the Crimea referendum on joining Russia as illegal.

But Xi’s trip to the Netherlands, France, Germany, Belgium and the EU headquarters in the Belgian capital Brussels is designed to highlight China’s expanding political and economic ties with Europe.

Multi-billion dollar trade, agriculture, financial and telecommunications deals are due to be signed. China and the EU have also started talks on a bilateral investment treaty.

EU-China trade is booming and is expected to touch US$1 trillion in 2020. Exports to China are helping Europe’s economic recovery and Europe remains an important market for Chinese goods. Whereas the focus was once only on European investments in China, now Chinese investments in the EU have exceeded US$30 billion in total.

China and the EU are working together on a programme for sustainable urbanisation and share an interest in promoting renewable energies and improving agricultural productivity.

Above all, Europeans realise more than ever that in a post-Eurozone crisis world, global growth and jobs depends on China’s continuing development and will be seeking reassurances about access to China’s markets.

Obama may still be able to move Europeans with his uplifting rhetoric. But Europe today needs markets, jobs and growth, not speeches. The transatlantic partnership may still be important — but China is undoubtedly Europe’s new best friend.—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.