Twenty-twenty was the year that saw Xi Jinping’s geopolitical lawlessness and domestic abuses peak. Yet the year ended with a gratuitous European Union giveaway to Beijing in the form of a one-sided, opaque and deceptive investment deal. The Europeans betrayed their American ally, not to mention their own values.
Seven years in the works but put on hold by the pandemic, the deal was rushed to a conclusion by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen. They insist the deal simultaneously upholds “our interests” while “promoting our core values,” as Von de Leyen put it.
But the draft confirms what anyone familiar with China’s behavior over the past decade should know by now: namely, that Brussels sacrificed European values to advance economic interests — marginally.
Yes, the agreement will open up new service industries to European investors, hinder technology transfers and add some transparency to state-run companies and other forms of market-rigging. The EU is hailing these modest concessions from China’s state-capitalist apparatus as major wins, but most of them were already in the offing — and could have been gotten without betraying human rights had the Europeans included the United States as a third partner.
As it is, the deal is bound to disappoint on its own terms, leaving European newcomers to China’s economy complaining about an uneven playing field in the industries that this deal opens up for investment, such as electric vehicles, consumer finance and private hospitals. While China’s giants are allowed to raise capital and litigate their way swimmingly back home, European companies will remain largely hostage in a rigged game, in which the Chinese state’s thumb is laid squarely on the scales.
And for what? The EU is essentially prepared to expose its routine sermonizing about human rights as cheap talk in exchange for fatter margins for carmakers, consumer-goods manufacturers and other largely German multinationals. Meanwhile, the deal does little to counter the Communist regime’s mass enslavement of its Muslim minorities. At best, it will kill ongoing efforts by human-rights advocates and China hawks at the European Parliament to rid the Continent’s supply chains of forced Uyghur labor. At worst, it will embed some new European firms into those same bloodstained value chains.
The official text asks China to comply with a number of International Labor Organization provisions it has already ratified while providing no enforcement mechanisms whatsoever to monitor behavior on the ground. China is at once a founding signatory of the ILO and the world’s capital of modern slavery. Thus, the Europeans’ getting Beijing to ratify additional ILO provisions can only prove meaningless.
The deal comes just as the China-hawkish Trump administration is on its way out the door. President-elect Joe Biden and his foreign-policy coterie, while historically soft on Beijing, have indicated that they prefer a joint, transatlantic approach to China. But the Europeans couldn’t wait to see what the new regime in Washington might mean.
The deal’s boosters claim the EU shouldn’t be held liable for not consorting with an ally whose own China policy hasn’t been stable across administrations. They also argue that getting caught up in the China-US rivalry isn’t in Europe’s long-term interest. But the European duplicity is, or should be, obvious to Team Biden, notwithstanding Democrats’ typical solicitousness for European goodwill.
In the post-COVID world, China’s market-rigging and domestic abuses are unlikely to abate and may even worsen. Against that backdrop, the EU’s race to cut a deal says something — something ominous — about European “strategic autonomy” from America, the buzzword first floated by French President Emmanuel Macron and now flying around Brussels.
Yes, the deal won’t come into force for another year, but two weeks is all the time Biden has to figure out how to react — not an enviable position for the leader of the free world. Biden might take a page from his predecessor. President Trump’s China-skeptic instincts and his distrust of the Europeans appear vindicated: Xi is as bad as he insisted, and Angela Merkel’s Eurocracy has been exposed as a blob of sellouts.
The democratic West needs a single spine. Let’s hope Biden has it.
Jorge González-Gallarza is an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo.