Related Articles Commentary Paper SIIS Report
Nov 13 2015
What’s behind German and French leaders’ visits to China?
By Zhang Haibing
Interactions between Chinese and European leaders intensify in recent days. Immediately after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Britain from October 19 to 23, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande visited China. What do these high-profile visits mean against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, refuge crisis, and euro crisis?

Compared with Americans who value interests and power, Europeans cherish universal values and ideas. In the post-Cold War era, guided by the liberal-market economic theory, Europeans have turned the European Union into a staunch supporter of universal values and human morals, and norm-making and institution-building have made the EU a pivotal normative force in the postwar international community. The Union itself is the product of European nations’ perceptions of and approach to the postwar international system. It aims at achieving peace through economic integration.

Both internal and external factors like the Greek debt crisis, the Ukraine crisis, and the refugee issue have put pressure on the Union, especially Germany, France, and Britain, the three leading EU nations, at the economic, security, and value levels. All these factors threaten to tarnish the three countries’ image as defenders of human values, test the Union’s policy coordination capability, and compel the Union to adjust its perceptions of the international system and pattern of interactions with major countries outside the Union. The intensified interactions between Britain, Germany, and France on the one hand, and China on the other, indicate that the European Union has been shifting its focus eastward, in the hope of playing a more pivotal role through enhanced cooperation with a rising China.

As the three most influential powers within the Union, Britain, Germany, and France share common concerns as EU members, although they have their own distinct national interests, strategic traditions, and policy preferences in terms of foreign and security policies. In contrast to the UK whose EU policy remains ambiguous, France and Germany are trying to present an image of solidarity. Chinese ambassadors to France and Germany described the two countries as China’s “core partners,” within the EU, an intriguing term that warrants special attention. China and Britain have already established a global comprehensive strategic partnership for the 21st century. The truth is that the three leading nations in the EU all want to become China’s most important and influential partners within the Union. Relations with China have become diplomatic priorities for the three countries’ leaders.

Bilateral relationships with China have become one of the most important pillars in major EU powers’ foreign policy. A sound relationship with China serves their national interests and closer economic ties with China also benefits the EU’s economic interests as a whole. Intensified interactions between China and major EU nations conforms to an irreversible trend in international power configuration---the collective rise of emerging economies has changed the global power equation. China’s influence is on a steady rise in the international system, enhancing its discourse power in nearly all global issues, such as the United Nations’ development summit, the G20 agenda, the UN reforms, and so on. For major EU powers like France and Germany, cooperation and support from China is essential.

European nations’ perception of the global power shift and collective rise of emerging economies can be generalized as: effective cooperation is more desirable than confrontation. This perceptions has find its full expression in the transformation of international economic system. In contrast with the United States, as advocators of international economic reforms, the EU’s response to the potential quota reforms in the IMF and the WB in favor of emerging economies are much more positive and proactive. Britain, Germany, and France have joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as founding members out of the strategic concern that it is better to join the initiative to shape it as an insider than to dismiss and discredit it as an outsider.

At this critical moment for China and major EU powers, the future trajectory of relations between the two major forces depend on whether they can achieve effective and equal cooperation.

Source of documents