China: High Stakes on Both Sides of the Atlantic
With the twin crises of the American budget deficit and the European public borrowing emergency, China has ample worries: Its main international debtor, the United States, is increasingly likely to pay back in devalued currency, if it avoids a more serious event.
Europe, China’s main customer – taking in a quarter of China’s exports – sees the underlying support of its unified market wither away as the credit emergency threatens solidarity among member states.
No one, least of all the Chinese, knows how these twin crises will end, since their resolution is so much a question of politics – domestic for the United States, intergovernmental for Europe. Chinese analysts decry Washington’s easy money policy which they fear will become a free ride on their country, and they lament Europe’s fuzzy and perhaps at times out-of-control decision-making process.
In other words, they criticize US monetary policies, and they wish Europe had one.
But one thing is sure. China’s stakes are high on both sides of the Atlantic. No demonstration is needed for the United States – US Treasury statistics are freely available, and they chronicle the inexorable rise of China’s holdings of the Fed’s paper. By the end of April China held US bonds worth $1.2 trillion dollars - nearly a quarter of treasuries held by foreigners.
China’s interest may be less evident in Europe for several reasons: Who holds what in terms of public debt is simply not an available statistic, whether in China, not surprisingly, a state secret, but also in Europe. It’s no wonder that proposals abound to create a European finance minister by any name alongside the EU’s central bank. Foreign investment – where only seven member states have a minimal form of overt rules – and even foreign trade are still viewed largely through national lenses. That’s why Europe’s fast-growing collective trade deficit with China was long underestimated by Europeans themselves. Public debt is also national, since the European central bank is in charge of monetary but not fiscal policy. There is no breakdown, for example, on the main foreign buyers of European public bonds
And China itself – after the disappointment in 2005 about Europe’s backtracking on the lifting of the arms embargo, imposed since the 1989 Tiananmen repression , after the 2008 Tibet spat that left scars on the state of European public opinion towards China – has scaled down its ambition towards some form of strategic partnership with Europe as a whole.
China has therefore since kept a low profile in the EU. Summits don’t produce lengthy statements; there are fewer high-visibility second-track conferences in Brussels between China and Europe.
China is nonetheless active in bilateral relations with member states, and this involves both commercial diplomacy, high-level visits and public diplomacy. The last increasingly revolve around the notion of “helping friends,” whether these are nations on the periphery of Europe in need of investment or simply cash. And this is no small change for EU-China relations, long based on constructive engagement whereby Europe gave and China received, as befits their respective status of developed and developing economy. Today, China’s Development Bank is as active in Eastern Europe, for instance, Hungary, as it is in Latin America and Venezuela. Chinese government visitors extend promises to purchase agricultural products from Europe’s Mediterranean regions or hold out the prospect of public debt purchases, usually without citing figures. There is no certainty on the amounts China may have lent to Greece, Portugal and the other distressed states.
China also pursues a commercial logic of acquiring logistical, transport, communications assets, from leased harbors and airports or runways to trading bases which could one day also become assembly centers. There is no question that if the political climate was right, state-controlled and subsidized Chinese firms would go heavily for Europe’s public infrastructure markets. Trains and rail tracks in Bulgaria and Hungary, done deals; a motorway in Poland, which has come unstuck; and even a high-profile offer by telecom giant Huawei to fit the London tube with a cellular network in time for the 2012 Olympics, to which the British said, “Sorry but no time” – these are testimony to the fact that China is now very much inside Europe’s economy instead of being a distant supplier and subcontractor.
This intense, pragmatic and on-the-ground presence raises questions, of course. Some of them are directly political. Isn’t China acquiring a new leverage with much smaller European economies in need? When Hungary’s right-wing government waxes lyrical about a “historical alliance” with China, it, of course, is courting Chinese investment and the choice of Hungary as a major entry point into the European economy, but it is also spectacularly discarding some of its own ideological tenets, on Tibet, for example.
Although some governments – Nordic countries, Germany, most visibly the United Kingdom – have held a balance between their political stand and their economic relationship, that balance may become increasingly difficult to maintain. But other questions are directly economic. After decades of aid giving and an open position on trade, the EU and some of its most core economies have woken up to the fact that China’s market is still comparably closed. They would like to leverage further opening of the EU – for example, in investment and public procurement, or on high-tech cooperation – against efforts by China to dismantle some of its informal barriers or to take new legislative steps in sectors where European firms and others have strong interests. But given the intergovernmental nature of many economic negotiations by Europeans with external partners, China may gain excessive leverage and perhaps an unspoken veto power if it can mobilize some of the weaker European members – either new members looking for investment or countries with distressed public budgets.
There is a strong need for European unity in this area – which often intersects the issue of the eurocrisis. At a minimum, the 17 eurozone countries would do well to acquire a common or coordinated statistical instrument dealing with their external creditors. An EU-China investment pact, now considered by the two parties, should be the occasion of an EU-wider regulation on foreign investment, incitative in the main but with a limited number of restrictive guidelines. And China’s push for European public markets – which may be beneficial in some cases for European consumers – should be reciprocated with a genuine opening of China’s public markets.
Europe cannot solve these issues by dealing with China alone. Its partnerships with other major rising economies, and in some cases joint thinking over the Atlantic, are needed. But here as in other developments, one finds that the issues created from globalization place a high demand for European unity.
(François Godement is a senior policy fellow of the ECFR and is co-author of “The Scramble for Europe. This is being reprinted fromYaleGlobal, the online magazine of the Yale Center for the study of globalization.)