EU-China relations have been tested recently, not least with regards to a controversial EU carbon tax on airlines flying through European airspace. The tax has been resisted by China and others (including India), who argue that the EU has exceeded its jurisdiction by applying the full tax on flights that are only partly in its airspace. For its part, EU leaders are frustrated with the slow progress being made internationally in terms of cutting aviation greenhouse emissions. Analysts warn that, if the EU does not back down, there is a risk of a trade war developing as China retaliates (see, for example, the recent suspension of orders for new European-manufactured airplanes by China). If, as many predict, China’s rise heralds a new multipolar world order, do European policy-makers and citizens understand this new reality?

In our last debate on the rise of China, we had a comment from André, who said: “I’ve got the impression that the EU is not prepared for China’s rise just yet. It often addresses China either as an economic threat or as a human rights violator. To have truly fruitful cooperation with China, the EU should move away from its prejudices, try to understand Chinese culture better and interact with it.“ We took this comment to Martin Jacques, British academic and author of the book When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, and asked him how he would respond to André’s comment.

I want to say that I strongly identify with the sentiments from André. Essentially, until maybe now, the European Union has had a rather haughty attitude towards China. It’s looked down upon China. It thinks that Europe is the cradle of civilization, that China is possessed of little or none of this. We’ve had frequent examples of EU and national leaders lecturing the Chinese on matters of government. I’m very confident that most of the people doing this lecturing know very little about China. We must move beyond this and start looking at China on its own terms.

Next, we had a comment from Leonardo arguing that: “Europe would not be worried about China if Europe turned into a knowledge economy.” Could this be a way for Europe to remain competitive?

Strategically, the idea that Europe should specialise in a knowledge economy because China will struggle to compete in this field is a misnomer. It’s certainly true that Europe currently has a comparative advantage, but we’d be living in an illusion if we thought this will continue indefinitely. China is rapidly advancing up the value chain and the Chinese have a huge commitment in higher education.

The other point to add here is that if you look at the figures for the proportion of GDP spent on R&D in China, it’s been growing very rapidly. So I think we’ll find China competing with us across the board, not just on manufacturing. I don’t think there’s a simple solution. I think that the rise of China will be economically quite bracing for Europe, in the sense we will be forced to change our behaviour in a lot of ways. There’s a cultural complacency in Europe. We’ve been protected in a lot of ways because much of the world was ours to use and abuse, but this is no longer possible. Europe is going to be facing some very big challenges, and it has to face them openly and head-on. There’s no hiding place, there’s no wall. It has to face the new reality in a dynamic and engaged fashion, not frightened; confident, but not complacent. It will shake us up a lot. 

We also had a couple of comments arguing that Europe and China are natural allies in a multipolar world. Rashid argued that “China considers Europe its strategic ally. The rise of China, therefore, does not threaten Europe.” Pawel, likewise, thought that “Europe is a natural ally for China in putting up an effective framework for the new century.”

I think that what both Rashid and Pawel say has definitely some elements of truth. The question is, will these considerations predominate over others. The starting point, as I see it, is that Europe has, for 200 years, been a dominant presence in the world. The US was a product of European civilization and this was solidified during the Cold War. That’s why we talk in terms of “The West”. There are historical, political and cultural reasons why this entity exists and is sustained. The question is, in a very new world marked by the decline of the US and Europe and the rise of China and other developing nations, will the West feel increasingly that it needs to fight to retain its dominance? This is going to be a very interesting question, I think.

We also had a comment sent in from Jimmy arguing that China is going to struggle with many of the same problems affecting Western economies as it develops. Whilst its economy is booming now, Jimmy argues that political and social faultlines will be under greater pressure and “ancient tribalism” will risk tearing the country apart. Is this a real risk, or just wishful thinking?

Partly wishful thinking and some truth. As China becomes more wealthy, the life of the Chinese will change. As China moves up the value chain, and its production requires more specialisation, it’s growth rates will fall. The future will not be an extrapolation of what the Chinese economy has done over the last 30 years, that is true. However, I think the best way of looking at the question is this: the Chinese economy is predicted to overtake the US in five or six years. Even then, the Chinese people will have a standard of living just over a quarter of that in the West. If the Chinese are ever to arrive at the same standard of living as the US, then China’s economy will have to be four times that of the US. So, undoubtedly, China has some tough challenges ahead of it.

We also put some of your comments to Tom Miller, Managing Editor of China Economic Quarterly and author of the bookChina’s Urban Billion, to get another perspective. How would he respond to André’s comment that European policy-makers don’t understand China?

What about the argument from Jimmy that the social and political challenges that China faces are going to impede its growth? Again, is this just wishful thinking? How real are the challenges facing China?

Finally, we spoke to Portuguese Socialist MEP Ana Maria Gomes and asked her a question we received on Twitter from Carmen: “Should Europe feel vulnerable and threatened by China’s rapidly growing influence?

I don’t think so. I think that Europe should welcome the fact that China is more relevant globally and more assertive. But, that said, Europe should not be afraid to speak up clearly and frankly with China whenever Europe feels China is not meeting its commitments and obligations as a global power; be it in the WTO, and not living up its commitments with respect to trade terms, or disregarding labour obligations and core labour rights or in the political arena, namely in the UN Security Council, when China is not living up to its obligations in terms of human rights, not just regarding the Chinese people but also other peoples. I see China’s membership of the Security Council as giving it higher obligations than normal members of the UN. That concerns the practices of China inside China, but also in its relations with the rest of the world. For example, I don’t like to see China blocking action in the Security Council regarding the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.