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China's global role after COVID-19

Webinar: Covid-19 and China’s global role after-Brexit

23 April 2020

The EU-Asia Centre hosted a webinar discussion on China’s global role after Covid-19 with Professor Kerry Brown, Kings College, and Reinhard Bütikofer, the Chair of the European Parliament’s Delegation to China. Fraser Cameron, Director of the EU-Asia Centre, moderated the event.

Professor Brown said that there had been unrealistic expectations about China adopting Western political and economic principles after it joined the WTO. Since Xi Jinjing came to power there should be no more illusions. China was unlikely to change anytime soon. Covid-19 had brought more problems and opened a debate about decoupling. A world in which US and China are perpetually at odds is an uncomfortable place for the EU and the rest of the world. The world must find a pragmatic way to work with China as the interlinkages cannot be dismantled overnight eg Apple/Foxcom relations. Efforts to face global challenges, from climate change to new pandemics, will suffer if cooperation with China is reduced.

Bütikofer argued that while China could not be criticised for wanting to play a bigger role on the world stage, it also pursued hegemonic ambitions and wanted to make the world a safer place for autocracies. China pays lip service to multilateralism and prefers approaches based on ‘serial bilateralism’, such as the Belt and Road Initiative. In the ‘battle or narratives’ the EU had ceded ground to China when it effectively removed human rights from its China agenda, and now China is taking the battle to Europe in promotion of its own model.

The EU’s attitude to China should be ‘clear, stubborn and stoic, but not escalatory’. The negotiations for an investment protection agreement between EU and China are unlikely to bear results for the Leipzig summit due to China’s inability to make meaningful concessions. Meanwhile the EU was improving its trade defence instruments. The climate agenda that should have been a focus for cooperation was also in trouble as China has doubled down in coal. The EU had to redouble its efforts on the multilateral front and ensure the global south was included in discussions.

The panelists agreed that the more aggressive Chinese diplomacy, as evident from the abrasive approach adopted by the Chinese ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats is undermining China’s more positive efforts. For example the benign potential of the ‘mask diplomacy’ was largely spoiled by the accompanying propaganda spin and forceful demands for appreciation.

Whoever emerged from the economic recession in best shape would be in a strong position to increase their global influence.

The recording of the full discussion may be freely accessed here.