Wen's European jaunt was just business
By Jian Junbo
SHANGHAI - On Sunday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao wrapped up his eight-day visit
to five countries - Greece, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Turkey. During the
trip, Wen also attended two meetings - the 8th Asia-Europe Meeting and the 13th
Wen's travels can be seen as aimed at boosting China's relations with Europe at
a time when Beijing is rowing with Japan over the disputed Diaoyu Islands and
with the US over the South China Sea. This has prompted some analysts inside
and outside China to conclude that China is now seeking a new balance in its
world strategy. Nevertheless, the new light produced by Wen's trip cannot
possibly banish the persistent shadow hanging over China-Europe relations.
It can be said that Wen and his delegation have achieved a great
deal toward their aims in terms of big business deals, social- and
cultural-exchange agreements and joint statements signed with the countries
In Greece, the two sides signed several cooperation documents and published a
joint statement. Wen also gave a speech entitled "Confidence to Overcome
Difficulties in Greece's Parliament", stating that Greece was a good friend of
China in Europe. In Belgium, Wen met Belgian King Albert II and held talks with
Prime Minister Yves Leterme.
The two sides signed pacts for cooperation regarding nuclear energy,
telecommunications and quality control, among others. In Italy, Wen met Italian
President Giorgio Napolitano and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and signed 17
cooperation documents and agreements with the Italian side. The two prime
ministers also attended a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic
relations between China and Italy.
In Turkey, Wen met Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan, and the sides signed eight cooperation documents. In Germany,
Wen was invited to meet his counterpart, Angela Merkel, in the Meseberg Palace
close to Berlin, and a joint communique was issued afterwards.
The implications of the Chinese premier's recent visit can be explained partly
in terms of the global financial crisis, since this trip took place in the
so-called post-crisis period, with Europe, especially some southern European
countries, still suffering from the aftershocks.
From this perspective, one can see that a main aim of Wen's visit was to seek
opportunities for financial and economic cooperation, widening and deepening
economic ties with those countries and the European Union. For example, in a
bilateral agreement, China promised to continue buying Hellenic Treasury bonds
to help Greece ride out its current financial predicament. In return, Chinese
enterprises will gain more investment opportunities in this country.
For instance, a Chinese corporation won a 35-year cooperation deal in Piraeus
harbor in Greece. Likewise, Chinese companies will also find more business
opportunities in the other European countries in areas like telecoms and
shipping. In Turkey, the deals the two sides signed cover many fields: trade,
transportation, energy, telecoms, culture and more.
Erdogan said the countries would boost their trade volume from US$17 billion
(anticipated for this year) to $50 billion by 2015. Meanwhile, the countries
have also discussed the possibility of settling their bilateral trade with
their own currencies instead of the greenback.
Consolidation of economic ties based on mutual benefit between China and these
European countries and Turkey will certainly enhance China's strategic
relationships with them, promoting mutual understanding and trust. In view of
this, Wen's visit can be said to have political implications for China-Europe
relations and international relations.
To some extent, Wen's visit can promote China's image in Europe, as the Chinese
premier has shown during the trip that China, as the second-largest economy in
the world, has great interest in investing in Europe and is willing to help
Greece and some other European countries overcome their financial difficulties.
This can help stabilize the euro and boost Europe's confidence in economic and
The friendship enhanced by Wen's trip may also help the two sides - China and
the European countries - join hands to fight their common rivals in the
post-financial crisis era, since they hold some similar views on reforming the
international financial system and safeguarding the global free market against
Wen said in his trip that "global economic-governance reform is of fundamental
importance in overcoming the financial crisis and we must explore ways to
establish a more effective global economic-governance system". So a boost in
bilateral financial and economic cooperation between the two sides is also
meant to change the international financial system.
For example, the China-Germany joint communique says the sides have promised to
enhance efforts to coordinate their macroeconomic policies and oppose trade and
investment protectionism, because both countries' economies greatly rely on
exports and global markets. Such cooperation in financial and economic areas
seems particularly significant at the present time, with talk becoming
increasingly rife about the start of a global "currency war".
For China, from its world strategic point of view, strengthening relations with
Europe may have special political implications. Some events in recent months
have led Chinese strategists to believe that Washington is shifting its China
policy from engagement to containment, with US President Barack Obama's policy
moving to "making a comeback in Asia".
For example, the US has used the sinking of a South Korean warship as an excuse
to heighten Beijing-Seoul tensions, and also to make China's relations with
some Southeast Asian countries more difficult by inciting conflicts with them
in the South China Sea. At the same time, China's relations with some
neighboring countries, Japan in particular, are declining over historical,
economic and territorial issues. In consideration of such changes, it's
necessary for China to look for more friends in the international arena, and
Europe is a good place to start.
However, the shadow hanging over relations between China and Europe cannot be
so easily dispersed.
It's well known that up to now, China and Europe's good relations have mainly
been based on economic mutual interests and benefits, not on common political
interests and long-term common strategic targets.
This means if economic interests and benefits run into conflict with Europe's
political and strategic interests or threaten Europe-US relationships,
Sino-European friendship will quickly suffer. Needless to say, a single trip by
the Chinese premier, however successful it may be, cannot settle long-lasting
quarrels over human rights and values between China and Europe - although these
can be temporarily shelved when the sides are eager to cooperate in the field
Even in economics, there are some conflicts and quarrels between China and
Europe that cannot be settled easily. For example, some European countries want
China to revalue its currency, the yuan, but China refuses to budge.
Wen said in Belgium that "we should intensify macroeconomic policy
coordination, manage with caution the timing and pace of an exit strategy from
economic stimulus, and keep the exchange rates of major reserve currencies
relatively stable". He urged European politicians and business leaders not to
team up with the United States in pressuring China to appreciate its currency.
Growing Chinese investment in European countries may also cause worries there
about the expansion of China's economic and political influence. Fledgling
military cooperation between China and Turkey via joint maneuvers caused some
concern among Western observers, since Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization and holds sensitive military technology and information.
To sum up, Wen's trip indicates that China and European countries need to
strengthen their financial and economic cooperation in the post-crisis era,
regardless of their differences over human rights and political views. A
China-Europe comprehensive strategic partnership hasn't gained any substantial
ground, although Wen has succeeded in further consolidating bilateral
Dr Jian Junbo is an assistant professor at the Institute of International
Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.