After the visits of political dignitaries to China, what changes have occurred in the mentality of Europe?

author:Global Network

Source: Global Times

【Global Times Comprehensive Report】"After the visits of European dignitaries to China, where will China-EU relations go? With such questions in mind, and with the aim of promoting people-to-people friendship between China and Europe, a delegation of six experts from the Globalization Think Tank (CCG) visited Estonia, Germany, France and Belgium in mid-to-late May. During the 15-day series of European "Track II Diplomacy" research activities, the delegation participated in a number of high-end forums and seminars, and conducted in-depth dialogues with dozens of political leaders, heads of international organizations and think tanks, not only listening to international voices, but also conveying China's voice and propositions to the world. From the Lennart Merry meeting in Tallinn to the Global Solutions Summit in Berlin, from dialogues with institutions such as the Aspen Institute and the Centre for European Policy Studies, to exchanges with the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU's external relations authority, the delegation members experienced first-hand the changing events of international relations and learned more about Europe's real and complex mentality towards China.

After the visits of political dignitaries to China, what changes have occurred in the mentality of Europe?

Baltic states want to "restart new life"

This is CCG's fourth trip to Europe in a year. At the end of June 2022, we flew to the United States and then to Berlin, Paris and Brussels in the shadow of the pandemic, seeking to break down barriers to communication between China and the West. In November last year and in mid-February this year, we went to Europe twice to participate in the Fifth Paris Peace Forum and the 59th Munich Security Conference. We added a stop to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, to attend the Lennart Merry Conference, an international conference named after former Estonian President Lennart Meili.

Tallinn, bordering the Baltic Sea, was historically a major transportation hub connecting Central and Eastern Europe and Northern and Southern Europe, and is known as the "Crossroads of Europe". Due to historical reasons, Estonia and other Baltic countries are very anxious about the progress of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the direction of Russia's diplomacy. The theme of this year's Leonate Merry Conference is "Rebooting a New Life". It is said that this theme is taken from the work of the European Renaissance Italian poet Dante "New Life", which is combined with the current context and has the meaning of reorganizing the international security order. According to our observations, this meeting actually discussed the impact of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict on the international security order.

We are the only Chinese think tank scholars at this Lennart Merry meeting, and we met Estonian Prime Minister Kallas, who was just re-elected in April this year, as well as Lithuanian Prime Minister Shimonit and Latvian Prime Minister Kalinš. During the meeting, the leaders of the Baltic countries showed a tough attitude towards Russia, and even took the initiative to maintain the leadership position of the United States in promoting NATO's participation in the Russian-Ukrainian war. Relatively speaking, Ms. Vestager, executive vice president of the European Commission, who delivered a speech at the scene, softened her tone, but she also did not relax her position on Russia.

When we visited the Estonian parliament, we exchanged views with Speaker Husar and the chairman of the parliament's defense and foreign affairs committee and others that the top level of the Baltic countries is very concerned about China's position on the political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis, issued on February 24 this year. Similarly, they are very much looking forward to the visit of Li Hui, the Chinese government's special representative for Eurasian affairs, to Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany, EU headquarters and Russia in mid-to-late May. During this trip to Europe, we clearly feel that more and more European elites now recognize the positive role that China can play in persuading peace and promoting talks.

As relations between Russia and Ukraine reached an impasse, more and more Europeans realized that the West alone would not end the conflict, and some turned to China for a solution. At a seminar held with the Centre for European Policy (EPC), a well-known EU think tank, a European expert argued that the views of some EU member states on Ukraine are increasingly moving closer to the BRICS countries such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa.

Is it "re-linking" or "de-risking"?

In Berlin, the German capital, local government agencies, museums, libraries and other public institutions still fly the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag, the same as we saw when we attended the Muan meeting in February this year. But at the Global Solutions Summit 2023, the tone has changed. For example, the theme of this summit is "Reconnecting: Towards a Sustainable, Inclusive and Shared Future", and a special issue of the conference also published an article on "Upholding Multilateralism and Promoting Global Governance".

When German Chancellor Scholz attended the Global Solutions Summit and delivered his keynote speech, we were all sitting in the front row. We were impressed by his emphasis in his speech that "a multipolar world has arrived." Scholz said that the unipolar world no longer exists, and an effective international order must reflect the current reality of a multipolar world. During the conference, we also held three Sino-Western dialogues with think tank scholars from the United States and Europe.

Paris and Brussels are must-visit cities to investigate Europe's true mindset towards China. In France and Belgium, the topics we engage with Europeans are increasingly focused on the keywords of "de-risk" and "strategic autonomy". It is clear that the aftermath of the EU's foreign policy discussions triggered by the visits of French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in early April is still unfinished. We jointly held a seminar on China-EU relations in Paris with the Aspen Institute in France, inviting important guests such as presidents of French think tanks and former Prime Minister Raffarin.

In addition, during his stay in France, scholars from the Paris Peace Forum, the OECD, the Asia Society of France, the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris, the Paris School of Economics and other institutions expressed great appreciation for Macron's trip to China and France's greater emphasis on the concept of European strategic autonomy. Many people also appreciate the CCG's suggestion that the United States and the EU can hold G3 dialogues on global issues and help the countries of the South to carry out dialogue and cooperation, believing that "the EU can play a coordinating role."

It is worth mentioning that most of the Europeans we contact will mention von der Leyen's "de-risk" theory, and constantly explain the difference between "de-risk" and "decoupling". Some emphasized that the EU's "de-risking" is not specifically aimed at China, but a strategic decision made by the EU based on its own economic and security environment assessment. Some finally turned the topic back to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, believing that it is precisely because of the escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict that it will trigger the EU's thinking of "de-risking". Some explain that the EU's "de-risk" is largely aimed at Russia, and for China, they believe that "de-risk" means to maintain diversification, and the EU needs to decide its attitude towards China according to the needs of the market and the company's own development.

At the EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, we attended a luncheon hosted by the Eurasia Centre to welcome the CCG, and exchanged and discussed with the Vice President of the Eurasia Center and former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Solheim (Norwegian), and Dominic Porter, Head of the China Department of the European External Action Service (EUPA). CCG also held three workshops with its long-standing dialogue partner, the Centre for European Policy (EPC), on EU-China relations, climate change and health cooperation. Von der Leyen delivered a speech at the EPC before his visit to China, which shows the status and role of this think tank in Europe, especially in China policy. It can be seen that the EU side wants to reflect a "careful balance" through these three dialogues: after discussing "China-EU relations in the context of a protracted crisis era", it is also necessary to highlight two important future cooperation directions for the two sides - climate change and health. From these meticulous preparations and arrangements, it is not difficult to see that China-EU relations are entering a delicate moment.

"The U.S. Indo-Pacific concept is 'India not printed, too unlikely'"

The subtlety lies in the fact that the EU's current psychology of China-EU relations is very contradictory: on the one hand, whether it is Gunnar Wigan, Director-General for Asia and the Pacific of the European External Action Service (EUPA), or Dominic Porter, who met with us, they are pleased with the frequent exchanges and reactivation of relevant mechanisms between the EU and China in recent months, and expect China to play a greater role in mediating the Ukraine crisis; But on the other hand, some Europeans are reviving the old tune that the EU set for China-EU relations in 2019. An EPC expert told us that the triple positioning of China as an "opponent", "competitor" and "partner" has different weight distribution in China-EU relations, but in the past two years, the weight of "opponent" has increased.

Too much of a view of China as an "adversary" has many in Europe worried: "Is the EU following the US too tightly?" They believe that Europe's search for strategic autonomy has been frustrated by the escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, and if China's persuasion and promotion of peace talks can accelerate the peaceful resolution of the crisis, it will greatly improve China's relations with Europe and even with the entire Western world.

The meeting with Gunnar Wigan, Director-General for Asia and the Pacific of the European External Action Service, has somewhat enhanced our understanding of the EU's demands. Wigan is German, tall and well-spoken. In an interview with us, he said that the six or seven EU officials we met here were all from different European countries, and that many of their colleagues' ancestors may have fought each other before. "The EU does not want to continue fighting after the ancestors are at war with each other," he said. Turning to Ukraine, Wigan referred to the values of the European Union, which is itself a very successful peace project and that all parties are committed to seeking peace. Peace within the EU through economic union builds the EU's greatest soft power.

At the Jean Monnet House in the southern suburbs of Paris, we were warmly received by Jean Monnet's grandson and chairman of the Institut Jean Monnet. Jean Monnet is considered to be "one of the greatest Frenchmen of the twentieth century" alongside Charles de Gaulle, and his greatest achievement was his participation in the signing of the Schuman Declaration in 1950, which heralded the birth of the European Union, the predecessor of the European Union. During the exchange, we talked about "China and Europe have common points in many places", such as "China has always supported the European integration process" is a common expression in China's foreign policy towards Europe. In 2017, after Macron proposed that the EU should achieve strategic autonomy, supporting the EU to move towards strategic autonomy has also become one of the basic attitudes of China's policy towards Europe.

To this day, however, Europe seems to struggle with what constitutes "strategic autonomy." Whether in Paris or Brussels, the European side mentioned that the EU is not "equidistance diplomacy" with the United States and China, and said that the EU will definitely prefer the United States. The "multipolar world" proposed by German Chancellor Scholz is also opposed within the EU. However, some European sources have told us that many former officials of European governments or people with inextricable ties to the government are unwilling to get involved in the confrontation between China and the United States. They said that as allies, the United States and Europe share common values, but they also have huge economic interests with China, and the EU itself does not want to choose sides between China and the United States.

While following the United States, the EU does not have a clear understanding of some of the United States' strategic concepts towards China, or in other words, its interests are not clear. Many Europeans have a different understanding of the concept of "Indo-Pacific" on the lips of the United States, they said: "Indo-Pacific is neither Indian nor Pacific', in which the Indian Ocean region does not include Africa and the Middle East, and the Pacific region does not include China and Latin America." ”

I want to experience the "Chinese story" in China

In one year, he went to Europe four times to investigate, and many Europeans expressed to us a strong desire to visit China more often and experience the "Chinese story" on the spot. Some people hope that visiting China in the post-pandemic era will be more convenient and less "blocked". For example, some European friends combined their own experience to say that China's mobile payment convenience leads the world, so that there will be a "generation difference" in China. Some suggestions suggest that China's railway department can provide tourists using foreign passports with all-round convenience such as ticket purchase, entry and boarding, and the threshold for entry tourist visas and 144-hour visa-free transit can be further reduced, such as further expanding the visa-free transit time to 288 hours.

According to these Europeans, significantly lowering the threshold for "inbound tourism" is the most cost-effective option for China's anti-"decoupling". This is because "when you come to China, you know China, and when you know China, you will be pro-China", and China can not only obtain economic income, but also improve foreigners' perception of China. Mark Twain was quoted as saying that "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness". The British writer Alders Huxley was also quoted as saying, "To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries".

Some European friends said that in the past three years, due to the epidemic and other factors, the favorability of citizens in some European countries has declined, but compared with the elderly, young people's perception of China is generally relatively good. Young people are the hope of the future, whether they are think tank scholars or ordinary tourists, they should be the target of more work on the Chinese side.

It can play a more important role in situations of international tension and is becoming a new ballast stone for world peace and stability. During this trip to Europe, both China and the EU offered suggestions to promote people-to-people exchanges. Next year marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and France, and the two governments have decided to jointly hold the Sino-French Year of Tourism and Culture. In addition, the Chinese side also welcomed the French side as the guest of honor at the 2024 China International Fair for Trade in Services and the 7th China International Import Expo. We also suggested to our French counterparts that China and France could invite young people to each other's countries to travel to enhance people-to-people exchanges between China and France. (The authors are the chairman and secretary general of the globalization think tank [CCG], respectively)