Federica Mogherini, high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs, shakes hands with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi after a joint news conference in Beijing on April 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jason Lee

Still divided over the issue of bilateral trade and investment, China and the European Union set out a common vision of international affairs and global governance during the seventh China-EU Strategic Dialogue, which Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi – the Asian powerhouse’s highest-ranking diplomat – and EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini co-chaired in Beijing on Wednesday.

China and the EU are both business-oriented global actors and they are more inclined to use economic diplomacy than muscular conduct in foreign affairs. Beijing is going through a problematic transition from an economy based on exports to one focused on domestic consumption, while the European bloc is trying to recover from a long recession. So they need a stable international environment, with multilateralism and international organizations like the United Nations playing a central role, to face their respective challenges.

The fear in Beijing and Brussels is that the United States will progressively take a unilateral approach to global problems. Washington’s recent missile strike against the Syrian regime and belligerent rhetoric against North Korea, in fact, suggest that US President Donald Trump is going to depart from the multilateral drive of his predecessor Barack Obama.

Common views

Mogherini said China and the EU had to work jointly toward “a more cooperative, rules-based global order”. In this sense, the European bloc praises China’s constructive engagement in dealing with world affairs and considers Beijing a key security and foreign-policy partner.

Yang and Mogherini held discussions on a wide range of international issues ranging from instability in the Middle East to regional security in East Asia. The North Korean nuclear and missile program was high on the agenda. China and the EU voiced concern over the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In particular, the Chinese state councilor called on the EU “to do its part” to help promote dialogue between relevant parties, de-escalate the situation and foster the peninsula’s denuclearization.

As for Syria, Yang and Mogherini agreed that the civil war in the Middle Eastern country should be brought to an end through a political process. China and the EU know well that the key players on the Syrian chessboard – Russia, the US, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – are engaged in a dramatic proxy war. China’s importance in the region is on the rise and the EU is the leading donor of humanitarian aid to Syria; their proposed coordination aims to find a way forward to the crisis outside the current geopolitical dynamics and within the framework of the UN.

The Asian giant and the European grouping also stressed their commitment to promoting a true peace process in Afghanistan and, in particular, enforcing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Beijing and Brussels see the agreement to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions as part of a wider attempt to stabilize a transit space between China and Europe – where the Chinese government plans to develop its new Silk Roads – as well as the masterpiece of UN-led multilateral diplomacy.

The Trump administration recently announced a broad review of the Iran deal, which in the view of the new US president pursues a mistaken approach and does not take on the military threat posed by Tehran effectively. China and the EU sent a different message – the agreement is working and they want this complex process to be fully implemented.

Upgrading Sino-European security cooperation

During her China visit, Mogherini did not publicly touch the raw nerve of Beijing’s disputes with a host of neighbors over territory in the South China Sea. The EU has always maintained that the issue has to be managed in accordance with international rules, and it supported the July 12, 2016, verdict of the International Court of Arbitration. In contrast, China rejects the arbitration court’s ruling. The reality is that Beijing is less willing to back multilateralism and international bodies when its national interest is in play.

Mogherini’s silence on the South China Sea row proves that the EU is ready to put aside possible points of disagreement with China while pragmatically seeking to build a more advanced security relationship with it. In the EU’s view, the Sino-European entente should work as a force of stability against the many centrifugal forces threatening the economy-and-trade-oriented global order that Beijing and Brussels favor.

The bottom line is that China and the EU are keen to eliminate the current international uncertainties and underpin a multilateral system suited to their own interests. If Beijing and Brussels truly want to upgrade their security cooperation, however, they will first have to settle their bilateral economic disputes. This is a problem that the two sides will have to deal with during the annual EU-China Summit scheduled for June in Europe.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.