China, a challenge for Europe? The Dilemma Between Coordination and Competition

China presents a challenge for Europe on many levels – for European countries individually, but especially for the European Union (EU). The largest challenge for the EU lies in developing strategic and coordinated policies towards China while member states and the Chinese government primarily focus on their bilateral relationships. A coordinated approach would however strengthen the EU’s bargaining power and increase efficiency.

In the EU’s relationship with China, the economic dimension has always had high priority. Today, the EU is China’s largest trading partner, while China is the EU’s second largest trading partner, giving a strong impetus to evolve this relationship – currently visible in the negotiations on a bilateral investment agreement or in the decision over whether China should be granted Market Economy Status. However, in questions like these, European countries and the European Union as a decision-making entity are divided. One the one hand, since the Treaty of Lisbon came into force, trade and investment fall under the Community competencies, meaning that the EU negotiates trade agreements on behalf of the member states. Hence, coordination is indispensable on a EU level in order to reach an agreement. On the other hand, even though the EU Institutions are in the lead of the legislative process on trade matters, it is the member states or even more precisely companies in the member states – and not the EU – that trade with China. Therefore, the relationships of individual countries with China remain highly significant.

However, China can easily gain from these divisions and greatly profits from concluding deals with individual countries rather than awaiting a coordinated approach. In early 2015 the lack of coordination was particularly evident as European countries rushed to join the AIIB after the UK unilaterally announced its participation. In fall 2015, within weeks Xi Jinping visited the UK, and the French President Hollande and the German Chancellor Merkel visited Beijing, the European leaders outdoing each other in their courtesy towards China and their efforts to seal as many trade deals as possible. Furthermore, China collaborates with Central and Eastern European countries separately within the 16+1 forum, angering European officials, who perceive this as another attempt to split member states and thereby hampering a common approach towards China.

Arguably the ‘Coordination-Challenge’ might well be self-inflicted and exacerbated by the decision-making procedures, the set-up of the EU and individual priorities of member states. However, this fact does not make the effects less significant. The following policy recommendations can support the EU in developing a coordinated approach towards China. First, the EU should develop a coherent and common China strategy. Second, in order to do so the EU Institutions, most notably the Commission, need to take and exert effective leadership. Finally, such a strategy needs to include a more open and less pretentious approach towards China and be based on sound area expertise in order to avoid misunderstandings and misconceptions.

The gains of such a coordinated approach following a concise strategy would surely pay off for individual countries as well as for the EU in the long run as coordination would enhance the EU’s collective bargaining power and thereby facilitating better trade deals for all countries individually.

Allgemein, Young China Watchers

“China in Africa”: A Reality Check

[This article was first published on Young China Watcher’s blog]

By: Insa Ewert
The second summit and sixth ministerial conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the main political forum for China-Africa relations, will be held in South Africa this December. Government leaders from China, 50 African states, and the Commission of the African Union will convene for the highest level meeting since 2006.[i]  Past FOCAC conferences have seen a series of commitments between China and African countries, strengthening trade, investment, and cooperation in other fields such as diplomatic support in international fora. They have also served as a platform to establish the China-Africa Business Conference and the China-Africa People’s Forum. FOCAC draws increasing attention from media and experts alike, serving as a simple representation of “China in Africa”. But Chinese engagement with African states deserves a more nuanced approach based on two factors: the definition of “Africa” and different actors’ perceptions.

Leaders at the 5th Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, held in Beijing in 2012. Credit: GovernmentZa / Flickr.

A reflection of “China in Africa” is long overdue. With interest on this topic only growing, the public image of China-Africa relations is predominantly negative. Mainstream media often promotes simplistic rhetoric or stereotypes. And as actors and perceptions diversify, it seems impossible to make a true statement about China’s engagement in Africa.

Not only is the term “Africa” contested, but its usage is not reflective of the wide range of divergent cultures, peoples, and political attitudes on the continent. While “China” is a well-defined termfor the People’s Republic of China, researchers and journalists frequently use the term “Africa” contiguously, lending a false impression of an equally precise definition. On the contrary, conceptions of “Africa” involve manifold notions of discourse, power, location, representation, geopolitics, and identity. Homogeneous “African” positions do not exist to the degree that journalists and academics uphold. An even more nuanced approach could equally distinguish between different Chinese actors and differentiate between their interests.


The one-size-fits-all approach of FOCAC operates on a similar rationale, and hence also might not serve as the best forum to understand the diverse needs and interests of African countries. Further, FOCAC is criticized as a political ceremony that has little bearing on the lives of ordinary Africans, with heads of state meeting behind closed doors in a remote setting. Instead of high-level summits, “China in Africa” is unfolding on the ground. Yet what indeed is happening on the ground is difficult to assess; while economic analyses tend to be narrowly focused, big-picture impressions overlook the complexities of reality.

A systematic comparison of the perspectives of four key stakeholders—the Chinese government, African government officials, Western academics, and African academics—can better shed light on this reality. By assessing each group’s perceptions through their publications, policy documents, and interviews, this analysis revealed the entanglements inherent in this topic. (Of course, this analysis presumed homogeneity of admittedly constructed groups. The Chinese government is the easiest to justify, but what makes a “Western” academic or an “African” academic? Whereas the former referred mainly to academics from universities in Great Britain and the United States, the latter included authors who self-identified as African.)

The examined actors agreed that: competition exists between Chinese and Western ideological approaches; trade imbalances disadvantage African countries; and the image of China within African societies is rather poor.[ii]  But differences in their views dominate the picture. The four groups diverged when comparing Chinese- and Western-implemented projects, measuring the impact of trade deficits, and supporting Chinese development policies as models for African countries.[iii]

All groups found it difficult to classify China as either developing or developed. Chinese and African government officials focused on the perceived strengths of “Africa,” which were, interestingly, natural resources, the power of media in shaping opinions, and policymaking capacity. In contrast, both groups of academics focused on perceived weaknesses, such as weak governance structures, a lack of skilled labor, and dependency on external powers.

The stark and almost diametrical perceptions of “Africa” between government officials and academics exemplify the demand for a more nuanced approach. As always, reality is more complex than catchy terms like “China in Africa” suggest. So what is the way forward? How can we speak, write, and perform research on Chinese engagement in African countries, while avoiding the pitfalls of conventional reporting?

Ahead of the summit, The China Africa Project developed a guide for reporting on FOCAC, including a publication debunking five widely believed myths about the Chinese in African countries (e.g. Chinese firms only hire Chinese workers). The China-Africa Reporting Project recently hosted a roundtable for international experts and journalists writing about FOCAC. Without doubt more research is required on Chinese engagement with different African communities. But equally necessary is a constant reminder of the multiplicities of actors, locations, languages, and experiences inherent to “China in Africa.” Responsible analysis should reflect the nuances of language and different perceptions of this complex issue.



 [i] Burkina Faso, São Tomé and Príncipe, the Gambia, and Swaziland are not members of FOCAC, as they do not adhere to the “One China” principle and maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

[ii] China emphasizes the following principles in its relations with Africa, based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence: sincerity, friendship, and equality; mutual benefit, reciprocity, and common prosperity; and mutual support and close coordination. The only conditionality China applies to its financial support is adherence to the “One China” principle. This contrasts Western policies of financial support, which often include conditionalities (e.g. World Bank and IMF lending clauses regarding human rights and democracy).

[iii] Although Chinese and Western approaches may differ in ideological terms, in practice China’s policies differ little from those of “Western” countries. This is significant as governments tend to make decisions based on strategic interests rather than ideals.

Insa Ewert is a Marie Curie Research Fellow and Doctoral Candidate at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg. This article is partly based on research conducted for her master’s thesis at the University of Vienna.