Unlike ‘flip-flopper’ Trump’s US, a united EU won’t be a pushover, China told

Business advocate tells Beijing not to antagonise Europe, which will be more difficult to negotiate with than the US

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 June, 2017, 11:53pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 June, 2017, 8:58am

A European Union under a strong coalition of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President ­Emmanuel Macron will be a tougher customer for Beijing to deal with than the United States under “flip-flopper” Donald Trump, according to a veteran European business advocate.

Joerg Wuttke, the former ­president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China also told the South China Morning Post that Beijing should stop playing divide and rule in Europe – a rare public complaint that runs counter to Beijing’s rhetoric.

Premier Li Keqiang said during his visit to Brussels last week that China supported a “united, stable, prosperous and open Europe”.

But Wuttke, the chamber’s president emeritus who first came to China in 1982, said Beijing had “played tricks” at the belt and road forum in the capital last month in a bid to increase its influence. He added that China would start putting more effort into dealing with France and Germany following Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

Will EU and China bond in Brussels amid growing belief that Europe’s future is in Asia?

China failed to obtain endorsement from European Union members of a trade statement at the forum last month, a setback in its push for the high-profile ­economic diplomacy project. European diplomats at the time said China had not left enough time for the draft statement to be discussed and negotiated, and as a result the EU members had ­refused to sign it.

“China played tricks to persuade EU countries to sign the trade statement. They lobbied foreign ministries in Europe ­instead of the Beijing-based EU ambassadors who are well ­connected,” Wuttke said.

“It was hard for ... foreign ministers [to have enough time to communicate] over the weekend. Beijing didn’t give enough time for discussion and took the ­approach of ‘take it or leave it’.”

That “taste of bullying” from China met with resistance from the European delegates, according to Wuttke.

And the situation did not ­improve at a summit in Brussels last week. China and the EU had been widely expected to forge closer ties and take the lead on global free trade and tackling ­climate change.

After Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, China and Europe were expected to issue a separate communique reaffirming their commitments under the pact.

What’s holding back China and EU on climate change agreement?

But the statement was scrapped at the last minute ­because agreement could not be reached due to a trade dispute. In addition, Beijing and Brussels made little progress on other issues – from a bilateral investment deal to steel overcapacity to China’s longed-for “market economy status”.

Brussels is particularly wary of the so-called 16+1 mechanism being promoted by Beijing – a scheme that will boost its trade and investment presence in central and eastern European countries, long seen as an area under Berlin’s sphere of influence.

German ambassador to China Michael Clauss told the Post earlier this year that China’s deals with the poorer EU nations were “somewhat inconsistent with a commitment to a coherent and strong EU”.

The Belgrade to Budapest high-speed railway project, planned as China’s “express lane” to Europe, is being reviewed by Brussels to see if the bidding process is up to European standards.

“China is active in splitting the EU with programmes such as 16+1,” Wuttke said. “China will now put more focus on France and Germany, which are becoming more important than ever.”

Trade ties may bind but trust is the glue to a strong China-Germany relationship

Macron’s recent victory in the French presidential election has minimised the risk of disintegration of the EU, and Merkel has vowed to work with him to hold Europe together.

“Merkel and Macron get along very well. China may face a far more coordinated European response. The leadership in Europe may become stronger in economic terms from Germany and in security terms from France,” Wuttke said.

“President Trump is a flip-flopper, while the EU is predictable but difficult to negotiate with from China’s point of view. But it is unwise for China to antagonise the EU, especially on bigger issues, because China needs the EU’s technology – primarily through open investment access in the EU.”