Europe and China: Cooperation Without Blinkers

Benner 2020 Without Blinkers

Source: Martin Sanchez /​Unsplash

The coronavirus pandemic is a prime example of what former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan described as problems without passports.” Highly infectious diseases do not care much about national border guards holding up stop signs. To fight their spread and their effects, we depend on the cooperation of all states, no matter which political differences otherwise separate them. To this end, China is of central importance. This also applies to other global public goods, most prominently controlling the climate crisis: without China — which represents one-fifth of the world’s population and already has higher CO2 emissions than Europe and the US combined — there is no solution.

We must step up cooperation with China on global public goods. That does not mean, however, that we have to curry favor with Beijing to do so. China has a strong interest of its own in cooperating on global challenges, as it is also heavily affected by pandemics and the effects of the climate crisis. We therefore can and should vigorously defend our interests in what is a competition of systems with authoritarian state capitalism, while at the same time intensifying cooperation on global challenges. With regard to COVID-19, this means: we can take a strong stand against anti-Chinese racism, recognize the suffering and achievements of Chinese citizens in the fight against the coronavirus, and promote cooperation between government agencies and experts without making ourselves the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China (CPC) narrative.

A Disinformation Campaign

The official Chinese narrative is clear. For the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily, the fight against the virus highlights the obvious superiority of the leadership of the Communist Party and the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The Central Propaganda Department recently published a hagiographic book entitled A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combatting Covid-19 in 2020. According to an announcement by the Xinhua News Agency, the book — which is to be published in English and other foreign language editions — shows how President Xi Jinping has demonstrated his commitment to the people, his far-reaching strategic vision. and outstanding leadership as the leader of a major power” in the fight against the virus.

Internationally, Beijing is conducting an aggressive campaign against all those who have criticized the lack of transparency in the actions of the Chinese government. In Nepal, for example, the Chinese ambassador attacked a newspaper for publishing a critical guest commentary on the lack of openness and trust in the Chinese government at the beginning of the epidemic. Beijing aggressively went after Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa and also expelled three Wall Street Journaljournalists from the country because the newspaper published a commentary with the historically charged title China as the True Sick Man of Asia.”

The Chinese government also ensured that Taiwan was not allowed to sit at the table at World Health Organization (WHO) crisis meetings. Senior Chinese diplomats have pursued a disinformation campaign spreading conspiracy theories about the US military as the source of the new coronavirus. Against this backdrop, the way WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is attempting to curry favor with Beijing is fundamentally misguided. The WHO chief is on record saying that China is setting a new standard for the response to an outbreak;” he has also praised the government for its transparency.” Ghebreyesus’ adviser Bruce Aylward, who led a WHO delegation to the Hubei crisis province, is also heaping praise, particularly with regard to China’s use of technology. In a recent interview, he refused to answer a question on Taiwan’s corona response, instead insinuating that Taiwan is just a province of China. There should not be any place for sycophancy when dealing with Beijing when it comes to how to respond to pandemics.

The same principle should apply to climate protection: we should seek cooperation with China without shying away from confrontation on other issues — be they technology, security, trade practices, or human rights. But that is exactly what some voices on both sides of the Atlantic suggest. Stephen Wertheim, one of the prominent left-wing foreign policy experts in the United States and co-founder of the new think tank, the Quincy Institute, said in regard to competition between the US and China: The American people can live with an authoritarian China. They cannot live on an uninhabitable earth.” This suggests that the advancement of CPC-style authoritarianism should not be taken too seriously in the face of the climate crisis.

Self-Interest in Climate Policy

And with regard to criticism of China, BASF CEO Martin Brudermüller warned at the end of last year that there should be a real, honest, social discussion about all the consequences,” making reference to the fact that many jobs in Germany depend on China. And he brought the climate crisis into play: If China does not cooperate on climate protection, it will not work. In that case, they will continue to build coal-fired power plants.” This suggests that China will build coal-fired power plants out of spite when political relations become strained in other areas. But when it comes to climate protection, the CPC leadership acts out of self-interest, not because we in the West are tame and servile. The CPC elite is convinced that China will be hit hard by the effects of the climate crisis. In addition, there is pressure from the population that wants to see a reduction in air pollution (e.g., from old coal-fired power stations).

To be sure, security considerations do play a role in China’s climate policies. The fact that China is not giving up coal also has to do with energy security. Coal is readily available in China and therefore security of supply is less at risk. And anyone talking about decoupling China from the Western economy should be aware that this could be bad news for the production of low-carbon technologies, as researchers John Helveston and Jonas Nahm have shown. China currently produces two thirds of all solar cell panels, one third of all wind turbines and three quarters of all lithium-ion batteries. This dominant market position is also the result of violations of intellectual property rights and fair trade practices. Nevertheless, we should not completely forego China’s cost advantages in the production of these technologies — the cheaper the price at which these technologies are available in large numbers, the faster they will be deployed globally.

At the same time, Germany and Europe should not have any illusions about the hurdles for cooperation with Beijing on the climate crisis. A joint European-Chinese Green New Deal” is not only a long way off because it is unclear whether Europe is serious about it but also because Beijing currently makes for a very questionable partner. At present, China is the largest exporter and financier of coal-fired power plants — often with outdated and thus particularly harmful technology. China’s gigantic Belt and Road Initiative has a very poor climate balance, and a merger of China’s and Europe’s emissions trading systems, as called for by climate researcher Ottmar Edenhofer, raises fundamental questions about how a market economy system could possibly merge with a state-capitalist instrument without ensuring the necessary transparency and trust.

Playing the Victim

Yes, we should try to intensify cooperation with China in tackling the climate crisis. But China will not export fewer coal power plants simply because we choose not to react if it violates our interests in other areas. We can and must do both: strongly defend our interests vis-à-vis China and lay the foundations for robust cooperation to tackle common problems.

That should also be the maxim in the arena of multilateralism. When accepting the Kissinger Prize at the American Academy in Berlin in January, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that we should not fall into a new bipolarity, but rather try to include a country like China and treat it at least equally, based on our results and experiences with multilateralism.” China Daily widely distributed the video clip of Merkel’s speech on social media. It is easy to understand why the CPC organ was so enthusiastic about Merkel’s statement: it reinforces China’s victim narrative that others are treating the country unfairly in the global arena.

In her statement, Merkel insinuates that China is not involved in multilateralism and is not treated equally. Neither is true. China is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and is prominently represented in many UN special organizations with top personnel (no other country had more citizens as heads of UN agencies). Yes, China should have more weight in the IMF, but apart from that it is not treated unequally. Equal treatment doesn’t mean looking the other way but calling China out where necessary like we do with other countries. If China violates human rights, there is no reason not to say so. Indeed, it tries hard to undermine the universal validity of human rights in UN bodies. And if China systematically violates the spirit of the WTO agreements through state-capitalist practices, then ignoring this doesn’t help multilateralism.

Meanwhile, Beijing has self-confidently established its own multilateral organizations, like the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB). Signature initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative are essential bilateral dressed up in a multilateral guise by bringing together all participating states at an annual forum in Beijing. During the current coronavirus crisis, China is delivering assistance to countries (also in Europe) with great fanfare. In a call with Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte, Xi Jinping spoke of a health silk road” China was seeking to build. This again is a purely bilateral initiative seeking to maximize Beijing’s PR gains.

China has so far refused to contribute to genuinely multilateral efforts such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) that is developing a coronavirus vaccine. Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom have all generously contributed to this multilateral effort while Beijing (like US President Donald Trump) puts a premium on its own national efforts to develop a vaccine. China does all these things not because it has been excluded by the West, but because it is a status-conscious country, with the Communist Party’s unconditional claim to power as the central organizing principle.

Interdependence by Design

This insight must guide how we shape cooperation with what the European Commission last year in a strategy paper called a systemic rival.” The current corona pandemic has reminded us of interdependence with China. But it’s crucial to realize that not all interdependencies are alike. With regard to diseases or climate, we deal with interdependence by nature. But the majority of cases are those of interdependence by design. Interdependence with regard to supply chains or technologies are the result of conscious decisions. Only now is it becoming clear to a larger public that we strongly rely on China for the production of active ingredients for medicines or protective gear.

This should give us reason to pause, because major powers like to use interdependence as a means of exerting pressure. The US political scientists Abraham Newman and Henry Farrell call this phenomenon weaponized interdependence.” Germany and the EU would therefore do well to examine where dependencies and vulnerabilities toward China should be reduced. This is what a sound understanding of economic security demands. This means, for example, that we should not become dependent on Chinese technology for critical infrastructure such as the 5G mobile network. This does not have to be detrimental to cooperation with China in other areas, such as climate protection. Dependencies in sensitive areas only fuel distrust, which does not make cooperation in other sectors any easier.

Cooperation with Beijing on global public goods inevitably takes place against the backdrop of a competition of systems. Policymakers in Germany and Europe should invest in cooperation with Beijing on global public goods. But they should do so without any illusions that this will be easy and without any hesitations to vigorously defend German and European interests against Beijing’s authoritarian state capitalism.


This commentary was originally published in the Berlin Policy Journal on April 2, 2020. An earlier German version of the piece was published in Tagesspiegel Causa on March 82020.