How China’s reluctance to expand a fragile ‘rules-based order’ weakens its trust with Europe

  • Mathieu Duchatel writes that China’s unwillingness to broaden a commitment with other countries to follow agreed rules contradicts its pro-multilateral governance narrative
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2018, 8:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2018, 10:42pm

It has become the core Chinese message to European audiences: let us defend the multilateral rules-based order together. This is music to the ears of European leaders desperately needing support to withstand the Trump administration’s unceasing assaults on global governance.

Seen from Europe, the US’ withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement and its departure from the nuclear deal with Iran, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action (JCPOA), are not abstract matters but the unravelling of a years-long effort to build stable foundations for international security and sustainable development.

At the 20th EU-China summit last July in Beijing, the two sides reaffirmed their commitment “to multilateralism and the rules-based international order with the United Nations at its core”. There is only one problem: this is a convergence without much substance.

Despite such good intentions and a comprehensive strategic partnership, the EU and China approach the end of 2018 with almost no positive record of successful cooperation in international organisations.

This is the result of their relative weakness vis-à-vis the United States in the case of JCPOA, but also of China’s pursuit of priorities other than its stated aspiration to multilateral governance – priorities that include relations with Russia.

Where does China stand amid the Trump-EU love fest?

There is a genuine China-Europe convergence in support of the continued implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, captured in the political statements they have jointly issued, together with Russia. The last document, adopted on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, underlines their common “determination to protect the freedom of their economic operators to pursue legitimate business with Iran, in full accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2231”.

But given their possible exposure to US secondary sanctions, European companies have different calculations. They are not convinced that they can get sufficient protection from Europe’s unfinished “special purpose vehicles”. As a result, Daimler, Maersk, Peugeot and Total have already announced their exits from Iran, while Siemens is winding down its operations in the country.

Can China and the EU work together to counter Trump?

Chinese companies are no less cautious. Even though China obtained a waiver from the US to continue importing Iranian oil before sanctions kicked back in on November 5, imports were down by 64 per cent, year on year, in October – a decline compensated for by supplies from Russia.

State-owned energy major China National Petroleum Corp agreed to take over Total’s stake in the South Pars natural gas field, but has remained low-key and vague on the specifics of its deal and when it plans to start operations.

This gap between aspirations and concrete action around the fate of the Iran deal underlines the non-existence of a Europe-China strategic axis capable of tangible outcomes.

Furthermore, Europe and China do not agree on all arms control issues. China’s choice this summer to side with Russia in The Hague and oppose the reform of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has put China in direct opposition to Europe on a matter of direct relevance to European security.

EU hits out at US tariffs with taxes on Harleys, bourbon and more

Despite the combined efforts of China and Russia, the OPCW has successfully adopted a new mechanism through which it can investigate and identify the origin of chemical weapons attacks. This expansion of the intergovernmental organisation’s powers is the result of a British initiative stemming from the poisonings of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter by prohibited nerve agents on British soil.

China’s insistence on the defence of multilateralism with European interlocutors is first and foremost a political response to the Trump administration’s unilateral trade tariffs

Chemical weapons should be an area of unquestionable convergence between Europe and China; in fact, Chinese and European naval ships contributed to the (unfortunately incomplete) elimination of chemical weapons stocks from Syria in 2014. But more importance is placed on China’s partnership with Russia.

Moving from disarmament to environment protection, China’s support for the Paris climate change agreement deserves praise: the pact would have collapsed had both the US and China decided to abandon their commitment to reduce emissions.

Unfortunately, China is reluctant to go beyond existing commitments. Since 2012, and again this year in Hobart, Australia, China has voted against proposals to create new Marine Protected Areas at the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. The proposal, supported by the EU and European members of the Commission (except Norway), would have banned fishing and other commercial activities in the Weddell Sea and two other areas – an area comprising close to 3 million square kilometres. China again sided with Russia, making its priority the potential economic benefits of the economic exploitation of Antarctic resources.

China’s insistence on the defence of multilateralism with European interlocutors is first and foremost a political response to the Trump administration’s unilateral trade tariffs.

How China’s belt and road can extend its reach to the edge of the EU

Regional environment governance and arms control agreements are less immediately important seen from Beijing, but the pattern of reluctance to expand the rules-based order from its fragile and endangered core contradicts China’s pro-multilateral governance narrative and weakens China’s trust with Europe.

Dr Mathieu Duchâtel is senior policy fellow and deputy director of the Asia and China programme at the European Council of Foreign Relations