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ZHOU Hong: "China-EU relations entered a stage of complication that requires careful adjustments"

Expert background: Prof. ZHOU Hong (周弘) – a leading Chinese expert on Europe

Prof. ZHOU Hong (周弘) is an elected Member of Academic Divisions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Director of International Studies Division as well as Honorary President of Chinese Association for European Studies. Prof. Zhou was a delegate of the 12th (2013-2018) and 13th National People’s Congress (2018-2023) and a member of the foreign affairs committee of the NPC (2018-2023). She has been working on theories and practices of welfare states, European integration and China-EU relations, international development cooperation, etc. Her major publications include: Whither the Welfare State, Toward a Society with Protection for All (co-author), EU as a Power (editor), China-EU Relations—Reassessing the China-EU Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (editor), Foreign Aid and International Relations (editor), Notes on Foreign Aid, The Diplomacy of German Reunification (editor). She holds a PhD in comparative history from Brandeis University.


EU-China relations have arrived at a critical juncture, against the backdrop of the largest geopolitical change in Europe since the end of the Cold War and a once-in-a-century pandemic. The EU has become a key third party to the intensified US-China strategic competition. Interestingly, when it comes to their respective approach toward China, the US is taking the cue from Brussels on topics such as the tripartite relations or “de-risking” – as opposed to “de-coupling”. As a result, the way the political winds are blowing in Europe will significantly impact the course of how the Western world deals with China in the years to come.

CMG: China has launched three EU white papers since the beginning of this century – the latest one in 2018. The world, however, has changed a lot since 2018, and the parameters around EU-China relations have changed a lot as well. Can we soon expect a new EU White Paper by Chinese government?

You are right. In the five years since 2018, the world has changed a great deal. The global economy and development have been hit hard by COVID-19. And worse, globalization, though still strong, has been severely challenged by many forces other than the pandemic, such as geopolitical confrontations or extremist movements.

In this ever-complicated global environment, China-EU relations entered a stage of complication that requires careful adjustments. I do not know whether a new EU White Paper is in the making, but it could make sense to help clarify China’s position vis-à-vis Europe in an age of transformation and readdress the importance of cooperation and coordination between the two partners. A clearer definition of China-EU relations may provide the world with more certainty, and the business world with hope for development.

What do you make of the China-related points in the announcements from the European Council meeting last week? Do you see rather positive or rather negative signals?

I have taken note of the current debates in the EU with regards to its China Policy, especially the joint statement by the EU and NATO, which declares that China and other countries pose “security threats and challenges”.

Today, I read the European Council’s Conclusion of June 30, 2023, and found the use of words more balanced, but without a significant change of attitude. The Conclusion reiterated its “multifaceted” policy approach towards China, confirming the “partner, competitor, systemic rival” stance, while stressing “a shared interest in pursuing constructive and stable relations”, despite differences in economic and political systems. This is a partial return to the basic law of rational relations with mutual respect for each other’s choices of social system.

The Conclusion also denied the decoupling with China and mentioned the EU’s engagement policy on global issues. As for some references relating to China’s internal affairs, I trust that following the normalization of relations on all fronts between China and the EU, some of the existing mistrust and misreading may be further clarified, and trust may be rebuilt to a certain level.

A number of European countries have unveiled their own China-specific documents. In some cases, the China approach in European capitals varies considerably from Brussel’s official EU stance. How does China see this?

The interests of EU Members’ relations vary a great deal indeed. Economic ties between China and Germany, for instance, are significant, constituting 8% of Germany’s export (US 9%) and 8% of Germany’s import (US 5%), while that between China and Lithuania is meager. The EU has a common but not a single foreign policy which means that the EU has many voices, though it constantly calls for “one voice”.

Since late last year, German Chancellor Scholz, Spanish Prime Minister Alexis Sanchez and French President Emmanuel Macron all came to visit China one after another, expressing their willingness not to seek "decoupling and breaking the chain" with China, but declaring their desire to “maintain economic ties” and "reopen the strategic and global partnership with China". Scholz in a Foreign Affairs piece in late 2022 for instance calls for the prevention of a "new cold war." And Macron also said that Europe should not fall into the logic of bloc confrontation, should not be involved in crises and chaos that have nothing to do with itself, and avoid the world sliding into a "new cold war".

Overall, China welcomes these positions and is ready to help prevent a sliding towards a “new cold war” together with its European partners, because this would be a catastrophic and sustained set-back for mankind. The people of the world yearn for peace and progress, not for conflict and confrontation.

What is your take on this year’s EU-China Summit? It will be the first one in-person since the pandemic, and hence carries significant weight in recharting bilateral relations.

As a Chinese observer, I look forward to the upcoming in-person China-EU Summit. After the pandemic, two-way exchanges and cooperation between China and Europe have resumed rapidly, some misunderstandings have been clarified, some lost opportunities are being recovered, and the vast majority of people who can think rationally admit that closer relations between China and the EU are conducive to the development of China and Europe themselves, and to global governance and the progress of mankind as a whole.

I like also to see more pragmatic cooperation projects as concrete results of the Summit. The Summit should also be an opportunity to clarify misunderstandings and distortions of China’s image, and to restore healthy relations based on mutual respect. China and Europe appreciate each other’s culture and civilization, they should be able to find common ground to foster even higher levels of civilization together.


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