Not a European beauty contest: The French and German approach to China

Within days of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the U.K., German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande made long-planned trips to China. But their approach differed from British Prime Minister David Cameron’s. Rather than promise to be China’s strongest advocate in the West, the German and French leaders emphasized that more holistic policy coordination—within the EU and with China—can yield the biggest long-term benefits for all parties and for international order.

Trade was undoubtedly on the agenda. Merkel’s business delegation concluded some multi-billion euro deals, with the sale of 130 Airbus planes alone amounting to 15.5 billion euros. There were also agreements between Nokia Corp and the phone carrier China Mobile Ltd., and between the China Foreign Exchange Trade System and Deutsche Borse, which operates the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. For his part, Hollande presided over the signature of one of China’s biggest ever sewage treatment plants, in the southwestern city of Chongqing. French and Chinese leaders agreed on a joint venture related to sewage treatment, primarily aimed at serving Southeast Asian markets. In the nuclear field, the China National Nuclear Corporation agreed to negotiate with troubled French nuclear company Areva and will possibly boost the latter’s capital in the future.

More than just trade

But the trip was not, as the official newspaper China Daily charged, a mere beauty contest whereby the European leaders sought only commercial gains. In a joint op-ed published shortly before Merkel and Hollande arrived in China, ambassadors to China Michael Clauss (of Germany) and Maurice Gourdault-Montagne (of France) outlined the visit’s purpose more clearly. Stressing that China is central to German and French foreign policy—and indeed to European foreign policy writ large—they wrote: “our strategic partnerships with China are here to stay.” They outlined the numerous issues on which French, German, and Chinese interests align, including climate change, Russian aggression, and the Syrian conflict. 

[T]he trip was not…a mere beauty contest whereby the European leaders sought only commercial gains.

Closer economic cooperation and “modernization partnerships” are still at the core of the German-Chinese and the Franco-Chinese relationships. Both Germany and France, who also want China to be further bound to international responsibilities, have leverage in the relationship. The primary tool is trade, of course (though the dependencies are really mutual). China needs German and French technologies critical for its modernization drive, including the “Made in China 2025” initiative, which is closely modeled on the German “Industry 4.0” plan adopted in 2013. 

But French and German leaders view these trade and economic partnerships as engines to work on other issues, particularly political and diplomatic ones. Syria and the European refugee crisis were at the heart of Merkel’s political discussions with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang. Li pledged support for finding a solution in Syria and participated in last week’s Syria talks in Geneva, for example. 

For Hollande, climate was at the core of discussions with Chinese leaders, with the Paris U.N. Conference on Climate Change (also known as COP 21) just four weeks away. The French president called China’s support for the conference “essential,” linking the climate issue with business and the economy: “The support of the Chinese is essential. The fight against global warming is a humanitarian issue—how the planet can be preserved—and it is also an issue of considerable economic importance, of what we call green growth.” In June, China pledged that by 2030 it would cut its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) by 60 to 65 percent compared to 2005 levels.

[T]here is a big difference between a “partner” and an “advocate.”

At this stage, China’s steps—whether they be climate-related pledges or involvement in conflict resolution—might look small, particularly relative to the challenges ahead. China has not become the “responsible stakeholder” that Americans and Europeans want it to be. But it is also clearly not disengaged with the international system: it has built up alternative structures such as the BRICS bank (the “New Development Bank”) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), for instance, against the backdrop of Western countries holding on to their privileges in international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund.

A European approach

Although the Europeans do not always speak with one voice, the more holistic German and French approach is a better way for European states to work with an ever-stronger China. On some issues, bilateral initiatives between member states and China are a good approach. On others, particularly issues like trade regulation and security challenges in the South China Sea, EU-level approaches are best. This will require more policy coordination within the EU. 

Cameron’s promise to be China’s strongest advocate in the West was not lost on Xi, who knows there is a big difference between a “partner” and an “advocate.” Instead of trying to become China’s lobbyist in the West or entertaining old school national rivalries, it would be better for European countries to concentrate on closer cooperation, both with European partners and with China. Truly comprehensive relationships with China—ones that go beyond short-sighted trade gains—will yield the highest gains in the long run. The German-Franco approach might be still far from perfect, but it is a good step in the right direction.