Critics of China-EU investment deal should drop bias
Officials and business leaders I have met in Brussels over the past two years have often complained about the slow pace of the negotiations on the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. So much so that some were not optimistic about the talks being concluded even though Chinese and European Union leaders repeatedly vowed to do their best to wrap them up by the end of 2020.
But eventually, and to the surprise of many, the two sides agreed to conclude the negotiations on Dec 30. Chinese and EU leaders applauded the breakthrough. And the business communities on both sides, which pushed hard for progress, are celebrating.
However, a few habitual critics of China are asking why the two sides concluded the talks in such haste.
If 35 rounds of talks lasting seven years is haste, then why the same group of people often expect things in China, a developing nation of 1.4 billion people, to change overnight.
Some are asking why Brussels did not consult Washington before making the decision, or wait until the next US administration took office on Jan 20. Such arguments challenge the strategic autonomy, as well as the wisdom and insight, of the new EU leadership. When will this circumspect group of people realize the EU and its 27 member states don't need US permission to pursue the bloc's interests?
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger and national security advisor-designate of the incoming US administration Jake Sullivan showed no respect for the EU's strategic freedom when they tried to intervene in the bloc's core issues.
Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, whose country assumed the presidency of the Council of the EU on Jan 1, put it appropriately when he told reporters earlier this week that it would be a "terrible signal" to block the EU-China negotiations or to condition them according to others.
The critics, despite being few in number, are divided over whether it is the EU handing over a win to China, or whether China is making too many concessions. The fact that both China and the EU agreed to wrap up the talks means they believe the outcome is reasonable and acceptable, to say the least. One side did not point a gun at the other, unlike in the case of the US invasion of Iraq.
There is no doubt that the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment could have been more comprehensive and perfect. But in any negotiation, the deal doesn't signify victory in equal measure for all parties and no one gets 100 percent, otherwise the EU and the United Kingdom would have had to settle for a no-deal Brexit.
Those who argue that the China-EU negotiations should have included everything, from human rights to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region fail to realize that it's just an investment deal. I didn't see them raising such issues when the EU-Vietnam free trade agreement was concluded in 2019 and came into force last August.
Instead of saying the talks were wrapped up in haste at an awkward time, they would do good to acknowledge that it has come at the right time for both sides and the world. The benefit of unifying the investment treaties China has with each of the EU member states except Ireland is quite apparent. Besides, a China-EU investment agreement will instill more confidence in investors, by creating more opportunities and providing better protection for their investment in each other's market.
The timing is good, not least because both the EU and China are facing major economic challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and China will continue to be a key engine for global economic recovery. That China replaced the United States in 2020 to become the EU's largest trade partner also bodes well for more win-win cooperation between the two sides.
In mid-November, China and 14 other Asia-Pacific economies signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement. And it is considering joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which evolved from former US president Barack Obama-initiated Trans-Pacific Partnership that never entered into force as the incumbent president withdrew the US from the agreement in 2017.
The China-EU and the RCEP agreements are powerful signs of China more vigorously promoting multilateralism, free trade and investment and an open global economy. Of course, this will be bad news for those who advocate China's containment.
The author is chief of China Daily EU Bureau based in Brussels.