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EPC's Sixty-Minute Briefing with Chinese Ambassador Zhang Ming
2021-11-19 18:35

On November 16, 2021, Ambassador Zhang Ming, Head of the Chinese Mission to the EU, attended the "Sixty-Minute Briefing" organized by the European Policy Center (EPC). Ambassador Zhang Ming answered questions on the sixth plenary session of the 19th CPC Central Committee, China-EU relations, the CAI, Taiwan, Indo-Pacific, China-Germany relations, Belt and Road Initiative and global connectivity, China's dual circulation, etc. The briefing was hosted by Shada Islam, senior adviser to the EPC. Excerpts of the dialogue between Ambassador Zhang Ming and Shada Islam are as follows:

Shada:Hello, everyone, hello and welcome to our Sixty-Minute Briefing today with China's Ambassador to the European Union, His Excellency Zhang Ming. Ambassador, welcome, thank you for joining us. So let's begin this Sixty-Minute Briefing. Ambassador, we last had a conversation with you in March this year, and EU-China relations then were already quite strained. US-China geopolitical rivalries were running high, the EU had been criticized for reaching a deal on the CAI, the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, and the EU was also under pressure to align with the US view on China as a strategic adversary. Since then the EU-China relationship has become even more complex and complicated and more difficult. There had been tit-for-tat sanctions over Xinjiang, the fate of the CAI remains uncertain. And of course, Taiwan has now emerged as an even more contentious issue than at any time in the past. So a great deal is also happening, Ambassador, outside the EU-China relationship and has an impact on this partnership. So Europeans have been following the Sixth Plenary Session of the 19th CPC Central Committee, which has amplified President Xi Jinping's role even further. There has been a long-awaited bilateral meeting online between President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping and the first readout from that meeting appeared to be quite constructive and positive. So there's a lot to discuss and many many questions to put to you. So let's start talking about these questions.

So the first thing I want to ask you really is about the overall relationship between the European Union and China. There is today a certain suspicion, lack of trust, lack of confidence, and a certain degree of negativity that is prevailing and hanging over this relationship. In fact, the reciprocal sanctions over Xinjiang have made the situation even worse. So my first question to you would be really because the EU has said China is a rival, a competitor, but also a partner, but increasingly here in Brussels China is seen as a strategic rival and competitor. So can we expect a change in this tone? I think a lot of it will depend on also the sanctions, the tit-for-tat sanctions. So is China ready to roll back these sanctions that you have imposed on European parliamentarians and think tanks?

Zhang Ming: Hello, Shada. Good morning. It's a pleasure to talk to you again. Indeed, a lot of things happened these days. Last week, the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China convened its sixth plenary session. We have a saying in China that through the mirror of history, one can gain foresight into the future. In light of this, the plenary takes stock of the party's achievements and experience in the past century. And going forward, we will have greater confidence to deepen reform and opening up, achieve higher-quality development, develop our whole-process people's democracy and promote harmony between humanity and nature. A China that fully embraces modernization will bring greater opportunities for the whole world, with the EU included.

A couple of hours ago, President Xi Jinping had his first one-on-one video meeting with President Biden. The meeting is significant for bilateral relations and international relations at large. The two leaders talked for hours and had an in-depth and concrete discussion that covers a wide range of topics. They both expressed the positive will to better develop bilateral cooperation and manage differences.

Back to China-EU relations, our last conversation took place last March when the EU was mulling sanctions against China. I remember telling you at that time that sanction was an act of confrontation, and that we hoped the European side could think twice. I also said that if someone insisted on confrontation, we would not back down. Unfortunately, my advice was not taken. The EU went ahead and imposed sanctions against China, which led to current difficulties in our communications.

To resolve such difficulties, I think adhering to the right perception is the most important step. The way you think decides the way you act. The right way of thinking needs to be built on the right perception. China expressed its clear opposition from the very beginning since the EU came up with the multi-faceted approach towards China in the March of 2019. We believe that labeling China as a rival was not only a misjudgment of our relations but would also create difficulties and uncertainties to our cooperation. Today, it's clear that this approach is not delivering. We always believe competition should be benign in nature. Between China and the EU, there is no clash of fundamental interests and geopolitical conflicts. China has no intention to enter into rivalry with the EU or anyone else. What we prefer is to work together with the EU as partners for win-win results. We hope the EU can view our relations in an objective and rational light instead of focusing on competition and rivalry. In fact, the two sides have established the mature practice of resolving and managing differences through communication. We should follow this path instead of treating each other as rivals or even resorting to sanctions.

As two major independent forces, China and the EU shoulder important responsibilities not only for our people, but also for world peace, stability, and prosperity. Today's world is faced with mounting challenges, and there is a greater need for China and the EU to join hands. China-EU cooperation is not optional – it's essential.

I'm glad to see the recent active momentum in our communications. Not long ago, President Xi Jinping had a phone call with President Michel. The two leaders reached a consensus on promoting bilateral relations. Currently, the two sides are busily preparing for this year's China-EU Summit, and are exploring new ways to promote our cooperation in numerous areas including digital and green development. I hope China-EU relations can maintain such positive momentum. For this sake, we need to think bigger, try to understand each other better, and deal with our differences in a rational and constructive way.  

Shada: The thing is that without removing the sanctions, the relationship cannot be brought on track. You know you will not get an agreement or ratification of the CAI. So I'm just wondering has China actually given up hope of ever getting the CAI ratified. Do you care that it is or isn't ratified? Because it was sold as a quite important breakthrough in the trade and investment relationship.

Zhang Ming: Commercial ties between China and the EU are very powerful. Despite the pandemic and many other uncertainties, China's trade volume with the EU and the US also increased significantly. This fully proves that the interests of all countries are highly interdependent and closely intertwined. But it's not everyone that understands this truth. A few years ago, we remember unilateralism and protectionism swept the whole world as the Trump administration backed out of international treaties and organizations. As a result, business ties were strained, the rules-based multilateral trade system was crippled, and global supply and value chains were distorted. The operation of global industrial and supply chains has been shaped by economic rules rather than man's will. However, instead of learning from one's mistakes, some continue to advocate for decoupling. Decoupling is not a viable option, and manipulation will only make things worse. China-EU relations should be mature enough to manage their differences in a proper manner. Switching between "decoupling" and "re-engagement" should not be our script.

It took China and the EU 7 years and 35 rounds of negotiations to agree on the CAI. It is a high-level, balanced, and comprehensive agreement that carries great expectations of our business communities. I regret to see that because of obstacles caused by the European side, its ratification has hit the rocks. I learned that both our economic communities have been calling for breaking the deadlock and ratifying the agreement as soon as possible. They are not alone in making such appeals.

To break the impasse, what's most important, I think, is to return to the nature of the agreement, which concerns trade and economic cooperation. Last week, I noticed President Michel and DG Sabine Weyand both made some interesting remarks on the agreement. They stated that the CAI could create better conditions for bilateral cooperation, but one could not count on it to solve all problems between the two sides. I myself identify with such remarks and regret to see the agreement being severely politicized. Because such is a deviation from its original purpose and spirit. I noticed that recently, some European business representatives claimed that economic relations should not become the plaything of political interests. The European side needs to listen to these voices.

Meanwhile, time and tide wait for no man. The RCEP, to which China is also a member, was concluded almost at the same time as the CAI. But it is already set to take effect on January 1 next year, in one and a half months. Two weeks ago, President Xi Jinping announced that China would further open up in more sectors, including telecommunications and medical care. China will not slow down its steps of opening up because of temporary difficulties facing the CAI. We don't want to take another seven years to ratify the agreement. We need to have more European enterprises participate in and benefit from our development.

China's position toward the agreement remains unchanged. In fact, relevant departments in China have been busily engaged in the technological preparations for its ratification. The ball, to speak frankly, is in Brussels's court. We hope the EU can return to the original spirit and nature of the agreement and do not let political manipulation get in its way.

Shada: The question of Taiwan is now firmly on the international and the EU's agenda. As you know, the European Parliament (adopted a) report, a delegation from the European Parliament had been to Taiwan as well. The concern is that China seems to be taking a harsher line than in the past and of course, the US and EU response has been equally robust. There seems to be a widespread consensus across the world, I would say, that sooner or later a confrontation over Taiwan is inevitable. So my question to you is very simple, is it inevitable? Is China ready to invade Taiwan?

Zhang Ming: The Taiwan question is China's internal affair and is a highly sensitive issue. But some people in Europe seem to underestimate Chinese people's aspiration for the complete reunification of our country. Let me stress that China's position on the Taiwan question is firm and clear. Such position remains unchanged and will never be changed. There is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. The Government of the PRC is the sole legal government representing China. The One-China Principle is an UN-recognized norm of international relations and common consensus of the international community. It is also the political foundation for China's bilateral relations with other countries, including the EU and its member states. Without this foundation, everything above will be shaky.

Sir Christopher Soames, then vice-president of the European Community visited China in 1975. It was during this visit that China and the EEC agreed to establish official relations. On the Taiwan question, Sir Soames stated that "all the Member States of the Community recognized the government of China and had taken positions with regard to the Taiwan question acceptable to the People's Republic". He also confirmed and I quote, that "the Community does not entertain any official relations with Taiwan or have any agreements with it". Such are binding legal obligations of the EU and its member states and should be honored with sincerity. We regret to see that recently, some people seem to find the Taiwan question an easy and handy card to play, and intend to use it to undermine our interests. Such behavior cannot change the fact that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. If anything changes, that is the Chinese people's resolve to realize the complete reunification of our country grows even stronger.

Last week, I read an article written by a European scholar. He advised the EU not to follow in the US's footsteps and "don't rock the boat" on the Taiwan question, which is too provocative and dangerous. Such rational voices need to be heard.

Just this morning, in his meeting with President Biden, President Xi explained China's position on this issue very clearly. The complete reunification of our country is the common desire of all Chinese people. We have the patience and are willing to strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and effort. But if anyone makes any moves towards Taiwan's independence and continues to cross our red lines, China is also prepared to take decisive measures.

Shada: That''s clear enough, Ambassador, I think President Xi said that China will be patient, but will react to provokes. You are basically telling us the same message, thank you for that. I am seeing quite a lot of questions coming in, but I have a couple of questions I do want to put to you before turning to the participants. Now when we talk about EU-China relations, we talk as you said about competition and rivalry, but we also talk about partnership. One of the questions that keep coming up is climate change. We also talk about bio-diversity and of course access to Covid vaccines. But here too it isn't really plain sailing. Neither the US nor the EU was happy that Xi Jinping did not turn up for COP26 but also not for the G20. And in Glasgow, China joined India in opposing phasing out fossil fuels, but talked rather about phasing down coal. So is there really cooperation taking place? Or are we just once again talking about rhetoric, not really talking about real cooperation between the EU and China?

Zhang Ming: President Xi Jinping addressed both events, giving full accounts of China's claim for economic development and climate cause. State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi attended the G20 Summit, and China's Climate Envoy Mr. Xie Zhenhua also led a big delegation to COP26. China's participation contributed to the success of such events. Accusations on China's absence do not stand.

You mentioned the differences between China and the EU. The difference is not scary in itself. Even inside the EU, there are differences from time to time. The key is how we perceive and handle the differences. The EU has a motto of "United in diversity". China also has similar idioms like harmony in diversity and seeking common ground while reserving differences. In face of differences, we need further dialogue rather than shutting the door of communication. China and the EU have extensive common ground in trade, economy, green and digital transition, vaccine access, and many other international and regional affairs. We only differ sometimes in specific approaches. China and the US also have differences, even major ones. Still, we were able to work together for the signing of the Paris Agreement a few years ago and on the Glasgow declaration at the COP26. I believe we will further strengthen our climate cooperation at the bilateral and multilateral levels.

The history of China-EU relations shows that the two sides have far more common interests than differences. Our cooperation represents the common expectation of the international community and is also in our best interest. Take the climate change issue as an example. As early as the 1990s, the two sides built joint projects on energy saving and emission reduction. In building our carbon market, we also draw the EU's experience and had its support. In October this year, China and the EU held the second High-Level Environment and Climate Dialogue and reached a consensus on a series of issues. Our common taxonomy for sustainable finance is just another example of China-EU cooperation in this area.

I notice such accusations that China and India's last-minute disagreement undercut the overall ambition of the conference. If we take a look at the Paris Agreement, it's clear that its success lies in utmost inclusiveness. Similarly, for COP26 to deliver, it also needs to take into consideration the concerns of both developing and developed countries and find common ground between them. This is of course no easy feat. Developed countries failed to commit to their climate finance goals to help vulnerable economies. At COP26, developing countries' appeal to set up an emission compensation fund was also denied by the rich countries. But these should not lead to an underestimate of the conference's significance. Time is calling for more concrete actions. We have no time to waste on accusations.

Moving on to the pandemic, the two sides cooperated effectively in the past two years. But our cooperation could have been broader and better, especially on promoting vaccine availability in developing countries. Unfortunately, the obsession with "geopolitics", "rivalry" and "the narrative battle" undermined our cooperation and shackled one's own hands. No one is safe till everyone is safe. In face of common challenges, China and the EU, as responsible major powers, must transcend our ideological differences and work together in good faith.

Shada: There is a question from the audience about Lithuania. He would like to ask in the context of EU-China relations, what are the main reasons for the Lithuania-China diplomatic row and how can we avoid such situations in the future. Do you have any suggestions on how to solve this?

Zhang Ming: China established diplomatic ties with Lithuania 30 years ago on a very solid political foundation in which Lithuania recognized and accepted the One-China principle. Any attempt to cross the red line relating to the One-China principle, which concerns our core interest, is not allowed. It will be considered an interference in our internal affairs. We hope the Lithuanian authorities will realize that and can correct their mistake and come back to the position of the One-China principle.

Shada: There is also a question about the recent diplomatic contacts between the members of the European Parliament with Taiwan. In democracies, European parliamentarians have the right to meet whoever they want to. What's your comment?

Zhang Ming: Just now I recalled the position over Taiwan declared by Sir Christopher Soames, then vice-president of the European Community. From the very beginning when the two sides set up diplomatic ties, the EU has promised clearly that it is adhering to the One-China principle and would not have any official relations with Taiwan. It's very clear. I hope that the EU institutions will stick to such position.

Shada: One of the audience asked, would China accept Taiwan to have official international relations as an autonomous region of China based on the Kosovo model.

Zhang Ming: Taiwan is a part of China. The question of Taiwan is an internal affair of China. In fact, during the past decades, the central government has taken a series of measures and policies to realize peaceful reunification under the framework of One Country Two Systems. The problem is that the current authority on the island has refused to recognize the fact that there is only one China. That is the problem. I think that the Chinese people across the straits have enough wisdom to resolve their own internal affairs by themselves.

Shada: The Indo-Pacific is very much in the headlines and the focus once again seems to be on, they say so, "containing China". This is the strategy of the AUKUS trilateral military alliance between Australia, the UK and the US and also the basis of the Quad which brings together the US, Japan, Australia and India. Everyone seems to have something to say about the Indo-Pacific. There is concern about Beijing' building up its military budget, nuclear arsenal and other activities in the South China Sea. Once again, there is a sentiment of impending confrontation and doom. Just wondering your view about that as well. Are we heading toward a hot conflict in the South China Sea and in the Indo-Pacific?

Zhang Ming: The Asia-Pacific region, which has grown into the world's most dynamic region in the past few decades, is home to many countries including China. Drawing from our cultural norms, regional countries have formed the ASEAN-centered cooperation architecture, which prioritizes a consensus-driven, non-confrontational way of addressing problems. Unfortunately, bloc politics and exclusive cliques are putting regional peace and stability under threat these days.

The recent establishment of AUKUS is a worrisome move in this direction. AUKUS is a military alliance that concerns nuclear technology. It has the potential to disrupt regional or even international order in numerous ways. It could create nuclear proliferation risks, trigger a new round of arms race, undermine regional peace and stability, undercut the building of the Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Southeast Asia and lead to the resurgence of the Cold War mentality. Regional countries and the international community are all quite alarmed by it.

To maintain peace and stability in the region as well as around the world, multilateralism is our only answer. However, a certain country keeps talking about its "returning to multilateralism", but at the same time spares no effort in pulling small circles. China, as a responsible major country that practices multilateralism with concrete actions, put forth the Global Development Initiative, promoted the establishment of the RCEP, and applied for accession to CPTPP and DEPA.

The EU shares the commitment to multilateralism. In its Indo-Pacific Strategy issued earlier this year, the EU also advocates for cooperation instead of confrontation. When participating in regional affairs, we hope the EU can "do as the Romans do" and follow our practice of peaceful cooperation. Because only by truly respecting countries in the region, and by upholding the principle of equality, openness, inclusiveness and cooperation, will they be able to contribute to regional stability and prosperity.  

Shada: There is a question about what will happen after the (German Chancellor) Merkel era comes to an end in the EU-China relations and the impact of a possible change of policy towards China. In Germany, the three parties are currently negotiating a coalition government, and are calling for a more aggressive European foreign policy against China. I am wondering if you would like to take that question?

Zhang Ming: China and Germany are each other's comprehensive strategic partners and our bilateral relations have maintained a strong momentum over the years. Germany is China's largest trading partner in the EU, and China has emerged as Germany's largest trading partner in the world for five consecutive years as well as its second-largest export market. The facts and figures show us that major countries can work together to achieve a win-win result. Going forward, China-Germany and China-EU relations should continue to follow this path. The year 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of China-Germany diplomatic ties. We hope the new German government can build on the political legacy of Chancellor Merkel and continue its pragmatic China policy, which follows the expectations of our two peoples.

Shada: Let me come back to the EU and connectivity. You talked about multilateralism. I have to say the ASEM online summit that will take place later this month is going to talk about multilateralism. It will also talk about connectivity. There, of course, you have China's Belt and Road Initiative and the EU is coming out very soon with Global Gateway as well. My question to you is do you see this as competition between different connectivity initiatives or is it possible to have some synergies and to work together on the global public good, which is connectivity?

Zhang Ming: Today's world is in bad need of connectivity. It still sees immense infrastructure needs, which call for countries to cooperate to fill the gap. What the world needs is building bridges rather than dismantling them. China welcomes the EU's Global Gateway strategy if it is truly inclusive and open, and can help developing countries and promote global connectivity. On the contrary, any attempt to turn infrastructure projects into a geopolitical tool would fail the expectation of the international community and harm one's own interests.

China and the EU have both consensus and joint actions in this area. For example, Chinese and German firms worked together on a bridge project in Mozambique. I personally visited the project five or six years ago. Chinese and Spanish firms cooperated closely in building hospitals in Ecuador. China hopes to further cooperate with the EU. We believe that our combined efforts can deliver a win-win result. Even if such cooperation cannot be achieved, we can at least each do some practical work instead of being obsessed with the competition. What matters most for developing countries are deeds, not words.

Shada: Another question from the media. Could you let us know whether MEPs or EU officials who continue to work with Taiwan will expect to face some retaliation or retribution from Beijing?

Zhang Ming: Any attempt to develop official relations with Taiwan authorities is not acceptable. Because it's a violation of basic norms of international relations.

Shada: We are running out of time, but I do want to talk about the economy as well. European business leaders as you know have been quite pessimistic about recent economic trends and initiatives in China. There is a fear that China is turning inwards and less ready to welcome European investments and European businesses. Yesterday in the Financial Times, you talked about how the EU was discriminatory in terms of its practices in trade and economics as well. How do you respond to European businesses' fears about China's dual circulation and other recent economic initiatives?

Zhang Ming: Lately, I spoke with many European business representatives, who shared with me that most European companies in China were doing very well and had great expectations for their future there. The latest reports issued by numerous Chinese and international organizations all verified my observation. According to EUCCC's position paper, foreign businesses' expectation and investment confidence in the Chinese market remains steady.

Meanwhile, some businesses also expressed their worries and concerns, asking if China will close its door to European businesses and investments. My answer is short and clear: never. As for China's efforts to build a new "dual circulation" development paradigm and its future moves of opening up, I'd love to provide you with two possible angles.

On the one hand, certain countries have acted against the trend of the times, pushing for unilateralism, protectionism and decoupling. They used their technological advantages and financial hegemony to choke our progress and contain our development. They want to forcibly close our door of opening up. It is against such backdrop that China tried to build a new development paradigm aiming at boosting its overall resilience. Under this paradigm, domestic and overseas markets may reinforce each other, and the domestic market serves as the mainstay.

On the other hand, dual circulation is not equal to closed-door economic operation or self-isolation but rather aims at a better connection between the domestic and the international markets and a more open, inclusive global cooperation. Despite external headwinds, China has been stepping up efforts to integrate into the global economic system. After revising its Foreign Investment Negative List for four consecutive years, China shortened the list from 93 items in 2017 to 30 items in 2020. Two weeks ago, My President announced China would further shorten the list and orderly open up its service sector. Going forward, China's expanding middle-income class and its higher-quality development will undoubtedly unleash huge growth dividends for both the Chinese and the international markets.

I want to further add that after more than 40 years of reform and opening-up, China's economy has undergone radical changes. Competition in today's Chinese market is not how it used to be. With its 150 million market players and higher management and technology standards, the Chinese market will surely become a more competitive place. But I believe that European companies have not only the will but also the ability to participate in such competition. I believe they can adapt to developments in the Chinese market and improve their competitiveness through innovation. Eventually, those who take root and work hard in the Chinese market will achieve greater gains.

Shada: Your advice for European business leaders worrying about China. Ambassador, we are coming to the end of this Sixty-Minute Briefing. But I do have one final question for you. I know Chinese New Year will start later in 2022 than our New Year. What's your one hope as we look forward to 2022? What is your hope for this rather complicated but important relationship between the European Union and China?

Zhang Ming: Time is flying. We are going to have our traditional Chinese New Year. In the new year, I hope, first and foremost, the pandemic is over. (I hope) our life will go back to its normal condition and the world will live in peace, stability and cooperation. I hope we will never see the cold-war mentality. I hate it, you know. All the best to all the people in the world.

Shada: As you have said often from your experience in Arab countries, inshallah. I join you saying inshallah. Ambassador, thank you for joining us for this very extensive and comprehensive review of EU-China relations but also look at the broader geopolitical landscape in the world and the Indo-Pacific. Thank you very much to all the participants for joining us. As you can see, Ambassador, EU-China relations are extremely important in the headlines. Everybody wants to have a question and everybody wants to know more about it. So I think it is inevitable that we shall meet again next year and hopefully, by then we'll be out of the pandemic and perhaps we can do this in person. Thank you.

Zhang Ming: Thank you, Shada. It's my pleasure.

Click for the full video of event.

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