11 January 2021

MP Open Call #4 – The Geo-Economic Debate on Transatlantic Relations with China Continues

The Open European Dialogue’s latest monthly MP Open Call saw the lively participation of six parliamentarians from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and Lithuania. As usual for these calls, the participants set the agenda themselves. Their conversation covered several pressing topics, like the state of the European rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine and the recent EU-China agreement on investment.

The EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) especially served as a catalyst for further discussion around human rights in foreign policy, east-west economic interdependence, the stance of the new US administration towards China, and the EU’s geo-economic ambitions.

On the US-EU relationship, it was observed that European governments signed the CAI without American consultation, despite being openly hopeful toward the upcoming Biden administration. Signing the CAI just a month before Biden’s inauguration could put a damper on the much-anticipated relaunch of positive transatlantic relations.

Some participants further discussed whether a bilateral EU-China deal that excludes the US would damage the prospect of forming a coordinated, transatlantic front against China’s human rights violations. They expressed concern that China will pressure a disunited EU and US into condoning oppressive Chinese policies toward ethnic minorities and the free press. A dominant Chinese economy could also force the US and Europe to be more lenient on Chinese disregards for international trade norms, like international copyright infringements.

Other participants disagreed, arguing that current trade policies are the acknowledgment of China’s inevitable role in all value chains and should be considered separately from human rights issues. One MP pointed out that Australia has been successful in maintaining its strong human rights stance while being highly dependent on its economic ties with China. This balancing act has caught international attention due to the continued Chinese ban on Australian coal imports. While the Chinese government did not make the reason for its ban explicit, it could have been due to Australia’s open critique of its secretive handling of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Finally, there was a sense that the merit of international treaties has come into question: One participant asked whether any agreement with China would be worth the paper it is written on – after all, the Chinese administration has not consistently honored previous agreements signed with the EU on investment and transparency.

All these aspects are likely to remain at the center of political debates as the European Commission continues to implement its geo-economic foreign policy goals and the Biden administration begins to lay out its own. The debate on this MP Open Call showed that national parliaments will not stand by but contribute their own views and ideas to a debate far from being concluded.

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