Why does Beijing support a strong European Union?

Explicit support comes as future of European integration under threat from far-right political candidates

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 March, 2017, 11:09pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 March, 2017, 9:45am

China will continue to support a united European Union and a strong euro, Premier Li Keqiang said on Wednesday, sending a clear message of the country’s hopes for the bloc’s future.

Despite the uncertainties ahead, Li said he was optimistic about the future of the EU as well as Sino-EU ties.

The assessment delivered at his annual press conference in Beijing came just hours before the start of a general election in the Netherlands, a poll seen as a ­barometer of this year’s key national elections on the continent and of the fate of the bloc.

“I would like to stress specifically that China supports a united, prosperous and stable European Union. It supports a strong euro, and Europe integration,” Li said.

“This is beneficial to a globalised economy, a multipolar world and a diverse human civilisation.”

The strong pro-EU signal followed Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement last week that Beijing had faith in a post-Brexit EU.

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But China’s ambassador to Germany, Shi Mingde, said at the weekend that China was concerned about the possible impact of the French presidential campaign on the integration of the EU and on Beijing’s holdings of euro bonds.

With Dutch voters going to the polls this week and the French in April and May, the future of the bloc and the euro is in the balance. Far-right candidates Geert Wilders of the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen of France are leading in opinion polls and both contenders want to take their countries out of the European Union. Two key issues driving the change are the refugee crisis and the weak economy.

European Council President Donald Tusk has warned that along with radical Islam and US President Donald Trump’s attitude towards the EU, an aggressive Russia and an assertive China are major external threats facing the EU.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has been against the EU for geopolitical reasons. Trump, who is close to Brexit leader Nigel Farage, once dismissed the EU as “basically a vehicle for Germany”, before making a U-turn last month by saying he was “totally in favour of” the “wonderful” EU – “if they’re happy”.

As a result, China’s explicit support, even if only a gesture, is important for the EU, according to Wang Yiwei, head of European studies at Renmin University in Beijing.

“The EU should appreciate that China is being supportive. How bad would it be if China joined the US and Russia to try to undermine the bloc, which is already hanging by a thread?” Wang Yiwei said.

Cui Hongjian, director of European studies at the China ­Institute of International Studies, said that from China’s perspective, supporting the EU was ­essential.

“Supporting the EU and the euro is the foundation on which all of Beijing’s Europe policies are built,” Cui said. “In terms of global governance, the Chinese leadership sees the EU as an indispensable part of a balanced multipolar world order.”

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Analysts said the EU diverted the strategic attention of other superpowers such as the United States and Russia from China’s rise, while the euro shouldered pressure from the United States on the yuan.

China has also been a big investor in Europe, including buying the government debt of some EU countries and purchasing euro-denominated assets.

“The EU is also the destination of the ‘One Belt, One Road’. Without a stable and prosperous Europe where would the [trade] initiative go?” Wang Yiwei said.

Cui said that while expressing goodwill, the Chinese leadership should also prepare contingency plans for the worst-case scenario with the EU and the euro.