Geopolitics: China’s unfolding European strategy

China's prime minister Wen Jiabao making new alliances (Photo:dpa)
China's prime minister Wen Jiabao making new alliances (Photo:dpa)

A five-day visit to three European countries by China's prime minister can now be seen as strategically significant for China. GIS expert, Dr Uwe Nerlich, puts the visit into perspective.

WEN Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, made a visit to Europe in June which can now be seen as a significant part of the Chinese political score.

The visit was also against a background of keen jockeying for position in China

The visit to Hungary, the UK and Germany, took place in the middle of the Greek-centred Euro-crisis and the Libyan intervention by NATO forces, which the UK helped initiate. Germany, along with China, had refused to support the military crackdown on President Muammar Gaddafi’s regime when it came before the United Nations in March.

The visit was also against a background of keen jockeying for position in China for the succession of President Hu Jintao in October 2012 and the prime minister’s own position in March 2013.

And it coincided with a reception for the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir by President Hu Jintao in Beijing – even though Mr al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes in Darfur, central Africa. China is not a signatory to the ICC.

In a broader context, the visit followed a Sino-Indian meeting between Mr Wen and India’s prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh in December 2010 and a US-Chinese summit involving both presidents, Barack Obama and Hu Jintao, in January 2011.

Domestic reforms

Prime minister Wen’s five-day visit to Hungary, the UK and Germany received little coverage in China. He is seen as the man who supports domestic reforms, even more than President Hu, in an uphill struggle against the rise of Bo Xilai, the Communist Party of China’s Chongqing committee secretary. Mr Bo is seen as one of the emerging leaders of the country and the most influential exponent of the establishment. But some of Mr Wen’s pro-reform speeches were not even carried in the Chinese media.

Mr Wen is currently ranked third in the country’s governing hierarchy and is the most visible pro-European politician

Mr Wen is currently ranked third in the country’s governing hierarchy and is the most visible pro-European politician. Playing a European card may look like a domestic pro-reform move but Europe is not that prominent in intra-party controversies and Mr Wen is not favouring a European or Western reform model. So what was the likely rationale for the recent visit?

Mr Wen last visited Europe in 2009, when he took in Germany, the UK, and the European Union in Brussels. His message then was that relations with Europe had moved beyond bilateralism. This time Mr Wen again stressed bilateralism but also to fight a common cause - the financial crisis.

Subtle understanding

China has a more subtle understanding of the workings of Brussels than most member states. Presenting China as a key supporter in Europe’s fight for the Euro and at the same time regarding Europe, but not the EU, as a main ally in a global crisis, meets both interests. It reinforces bilateralism with the EU and safeguards the Euro as an indispensable and balancing element in future efforts to restructure the global currency system.

Mr Wen chose Hungary, Germany and Great Britain for this trip because they would help China’s unfolding European strategy.

Hungary needs financial support and has a government which is criticised throughout Europe for its restraint on press freedom. It is situated as a ‘logistic hub’ in central Europe and for Balkan countries and provided a good setting for the first visit by a Chinese leader since the end of the Cold War 20 years ago. Mr Wen presented China as a saviour of troubled European countries. Both Europe and Hungary welcomed China as a new kind of ally.

Chinese bilateralism

Germany is already uniquely dependent on the Chinese market as German exports now represent a third of all EU exports to China. Germany and China are the two major countries which have so far emerged strongly from the ongoing financial crisis. Singling out Germany as the partner most likely to become a strategic player on its own reflects both Chinese bilateralism and its understanding of the limited purpose of the EU.

Germany was seen by China as the driver of current European efforts to save the Euro

Germany was seen by China as the driver of current European efforts to save the Euro but the UK was praised by China as a ‘global hub’. It is seen as a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) member involved in the NATO intervention of Libya, but not in the forefront of revolutionary movements which the Chinese leadership is anxious to keep out of China. Economic cooperation between the UK and China topped the talks’ agenda but the UK was not regarded as key to solutions to the financial crisis.

Mr Wen’s visit certainly strengthens Europe’s role as providing balance in the evolving perennial competition between the US and China.

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