In recent decades, China has risen to become one of the world’s political and economic great powers. Since Xi Jinping’s ascendance to the chairmanship and presidency, China has increasingly abandoned its policy of avoiding the international spotlight, and today confidently pursues its national interests abroad. For many countries, Chinese influence on their domestic economy, politics, and society has become a matter of central importance.
This year’s edition of the Trier China Talks examined China’s approach to the management of bilateral relationships. Experts from Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe were invited to take part in the conference’s discussions, with the goal of gleaning useful insights for the future conduct of Sino-German and Sino-European relations. Around 50 guests participated in the event at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Berlin, which was co-organized by MERICS.
Experts from Pakistan, South Africa, Vietnam, Chile, and Germany first sought to offer assessments on Chinese relations as seen from their individual regions. Evaluations were mixed: in Pakistan and Africa, cooperation with China seems to present great opportunities, particularly in the development of much-needed infrastructure. Yet at the same time many of the cooperative projects pursued in Africa, such as the Chinese Special Economic Zones, have not proven as successful as anticipated. Projected boosts to local economies have failed to materialize. In the course of the talks, it emerged that in their relationships with China developing countries increasingly see themselves as facing an asymmetrical distribution of power. Countries such as Vietnam and Mexico are wary of becoming too dependent on China, and are concerned that Beijing could begin to make China-friendly policies a condition of continued economic cooperation. All too often, they fear, their relations with China are construed solely in terms of trade and investment, and the effects on areas such as culture, education, and the environment are neglected.
European participants at the Talks focused on their countries’ bilateral relationships with China. Here stark differences in national interest could be observed. Greece for instance, since the economic crisis, has come to rely heavily upon Chinese investment, particularly in its ports and its energy sector. This raises questions whether China may use its leverage to influence Greek politics.
For countries such as Germany however, achieving reciprocal access to the Chinese market is the issue of priority. To this end, in the opinion of many conference-goers, better coordination between EU member states on China policy is needed — a call to action that has surfaced repeatedly over the years. In this regard, China’s own policy of pursuing cooperative projects such as the 16+1 Initiative with only certain Central and Eastern European states was identified as one of the central obstacles to developing a unified European posture.
What priorities should Europe set in its approach to China and how can Europe gain a better negotiating position in its dealings with the People’s Republic? The conference’s final panel reflected on these questions, with Sebastian Heilmann, President of the Mercator Institute for China Studies, leading the discussion.
Each year, the Trier China Talks provide a forum for a high-caliber discussion of Chinese international relations and internal developments, as well as the implications of these for Germany and Europe as a whole. The conference is staged by the Federal Academy for Security Policy (BAKS), the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS), the Alumni Association of the Political Science Department of Trier University, and MERICS.