China is losing its EU friends

China is losing its EU friends

Katinka Barysch
29 November 2007

by Katinka Barysch

The EU is getting tough on China. That, at least, is the impression one gets from high-ranking EU officials that arrived for the annual EU-China summit in Beijing this week. Economics is the main reason for Europe’s changing mood. The EU’s trade deficit with China is set to reach €170 billion this year, and European business is losing an estimated €55 million a day because of Chinese red tape, trademark violations and unfair subsidies. The EU’s economic troika – Joaquin Almunia, Jean-Claude Juncker and Jean-Claude Trichet – called on China to let its currency rise against the euro. Commission President Barroso and his trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, warned that they would no longer be able to withstand rising protectionist pressure in Europe, unless the Chinese made it easier for European companies to sell in their markets.

Will the Chinese be frightened? Maybe they should be. Those industries in the EU that compete directly with Chinese mass manufacturers – think Italian textiles, German light bulbs or Czech consumer electronics – have occasionally lobbied for protection. But European retailers and those industries that rely on cheap Chinese inputs, for example steel, have lobbied against. At the political level, the Chinese could usually rely on Germany, the UK and the Commission to make the case for open markets. However, this may no longer be the case.

The Commission’s patience seems to be wearing thin. Mandelson in October wrote a letter to Barroso that suggested that the EU’s dialogue-based approach to solving economic disputes with China may have run its course.

The British may be instinctive free traders. But British business is unlikely to lobby on China’s behalf. UK companies still sell roughly as much to Denmark and Dubai as they sell to China. On the other hand, China is now Britain’s 5th most important source of imports, with the result that the bilateral trade deficit reached €24 billion in 2006, a third of the UK’s total trade deficit with non-EU countries. Services, where UK companies are world leaders, account for only a tiny fraction of Chinese imports because domestic markets remain heavily protected. A recent survey showed that while globally almost half of company bosses see China as the biggest business opportunity, in the UK the share is only 37 per cent.

Perhaps most worrying for the Chinese is the shifting mood in Berlin, however. Germany alone accounts for around 40 per cent of all EU exports to China, not least because Germany specialises in exactly the kind of machine tools that China needs to build up its industrial sector. Since 2000, Germany’s exports to China have risen threefold. Since the German economy is much more dependent on exports than those of other big EU countries, it has had a strong interest in keeping economic relations with China smooth.

In recent years, however, the rising euro has made German goods expensive outside the eurozone. And German, like other western companies, have suffered from China’s very cavalier attitude towards patents and trade marks. In 2006, German machinery exports to China actually fell. Germany’s trade deficit with China has more than doubled since 2000, to €16 billion in 2006, and it keeps growing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the share of Germans who see China as an economic threat has jumped by 17 percentage points in just two years, to 55 per cent in 2007 – the biggest public opinion turnaround in any big OECD country.

German awareness of China as a competitor, not only a promising market, will rise further as Chinese industry moves up the value chain. Chinese car output, for example, is growing by 40 per cent a year. Although Chinese cars have a long way to go before they can compete with Volkswagen or BMW, the fact that China now produces more of them than Germany has fuelled some disquiet. As has the fact that China has dethroned Germany as the world’s biggest exporter.

At the same time as economic ties are souring, Germany and China have fallen out politically. The Chinese were very upset when Angela Merkel received the Dalai Lama in her Chancellor’s office in September 2007. Merkel initially said she’d expect Beijing to calm down quickly. It did not. Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck had to cancel a planned trip to Beijing because his counterpart was no longer available. Chinese state-owned companies pulled out of a China-German trade fare. Scheduled dialogues on human rights, the rule of law and foreign policy co-operation were called off.

At the EU summit, Premier Wen Jiabao said that Germany could still be a partner and a friend – provided that Merkel acknowledged publicly that she had made a mistake by seeing the Dalai Lama. The Chancellor is also under growing pressure from German business groups and her SPD partners in the grand coalition. But she is unlikely to budge. In a speech to parliamentarians at home, she insisted that “human rights and the defence of economic interests are two sides of the same coin”.

While they have put relations with Germany on ice, the Chinese have reached out to France. Nicolas Sarkozy grasped the opportunity at a bilateral summit in Beijing on November 25th. As is customary, he came with a group of French business leaders, who signed deals worth around €20 billion (although such ‘summit deals’ have a habit of falling apart afterwards). However, Sarkozy is unlikely to be as friendly to the Chinese as his famously Sinophile predecessor, Jacques Chirac. While he promised strong ties, Sarkozy also admonished Beijing for its currency policy and warned that Europe may slap ‘carbon tariffs’ on Chinese goods unless the Beijing contributed to a post-Kyoto agreement.

Europe will not make a full turn towards protectionism. But there clearly is growing potential for economic friction with China. Beijing’s usual conciliatory language – promising gradual change and open dialogue – may no longer be enough. It may have to offer concrete action on currency policy and economic opening if it wants to win its European friends back.

Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.