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Fidel Sendagorta: «We Must Endeavour to Defend Ourselves from an Undue Influence from China»

Fidel Sendagorta (@yiuqodrag) is a diplomat who has served in several diplomatic posts at the Embassies of Spain in Tokyo, Havana, and Rabat, as well as at the Permanent Representation of Spain to the European Union in Brussels. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he was also Director General for the Mediterranean, Maghreb, and the Middle East (2008-2010), Spanish Ambassador to Egypt (2010-2014), and Director General for North America, Asia, and the Pacific (2015-2018).

In 2019 he was a Visiting Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the author of the essay Europe at the twilight: decline or revival? (Biblioteca Nueva, 2007) and member of the Scientific Council of the Elcano Royal Institute. He is currently Director General of Foreign and Security Policy, and has just published Power Strategies: China, the United States and Europe in the era of great rivalry (Ediciones Deusto, 2020).

Mr. Sendagorta during the interview © European Guanxi / CC BY

First of all, I wanted to thank you, Mr. Sendagorta, for your availability for this interview. For European Guanxi, and for myself, it is a privilege to be able to discuss and reflect with you on China and Europe.

Taking into account the changes that we are observing in the international order, I wanted to ask you directly about one of the questions that dominate the political debate at the European level the most: is the rise of China an opportunity or a threat for the European Union (EU)?

I would say that it is a structural change in the international system due to the new power that China has accumulated in the economic field and therefore also in other fields, such as in military or political terms. This will change pre-existing balances whilst we move into a new stage that we are still learning to navigate. In other words, the rise of China is an objective fact that we have to live with, and it has aspects that can be disturbing, such as the ways in which this power can be used in a manner that may be contrary to our values ​​and interests. Yet it also has, without a doubt, aspects of opportunity, since it is a large market that is very attractive for our companies, and it will become more and more so as the country's income increases. In addition, China is going to be a major international actor that, in coordination with other members of the international community, can also contribute to significant progress on issues such as climate change and an in-depth reform of the World Trade Organization (WTO) or also of the World Health Organization (WHO).

In March 2019, the European Commission published a report describing China as a "cooperative partner", an "economic competitor", and a "systemic rival". Since then, and especially in the wake of COVID-19, it seems that the EU is changing the way it approaches relations with Beijing. Why?

The document you mention from March 2019 was a starting point rather than an end, in the sense that there is clearly a "change in doctrine". From now on, the relationship with China is going to be a complex one in which elements of cooperation, economic competition, and also rivalry are going to be part of a new mix of policies.

I think that the challenge now is how we manage that complexity and how we create policies that factor all the multifaceted features of our relationship with China. It will not always be easy to make them compatible, but the fact that cooperation is well and alive has been demonstrated with the recently concluded agreement on investments. Therefore, nothing prevents that cooperation when there are common interests, but we also have another part of the agenda in which we are aware that we are competing with a power that has ​​different values from ours. A very clear example is the whole question of the digital model, since we have divergent models based on conflicting values.

What is China looking for? What does China aspire to in the 21st century?

I think China does not hide that it intends to become the predominant power in Asia and that it is natural from their standpoint to be so again one day. Of course, the point is that whoever is the predominant power in Asia has many chances to also become the predominant power throughout the world, since Asia is where most of the world's economic growth is already concentrated. Therefore, it is the most economically relevant continent for the coming years. And the United States is not ready to accept these ambitions as it is an international actor that also considers itself a Pacific power which has all the legitimacy to be present in the region. Thus, they do not want to give China that space of preponderance in an area of inevitable significance at the geopolitical level. Therefore, competition between the two powers is going to be more intense and fiercer from many points of view: from an economic or technological point of view, but also from a military point of view around Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Following the results of the US elections, it is expected that the Biden Administration will take its allies into account more. What implications could a strengthening of transatlantic relations have for EU-China relations?

We are now entering a phase in which there will be an easier dialogue between the EU and the new Administration in Washington, which will be extended to all relevant issues, whether they are trade differences, discussions on digital matters regarding both the transfer of data and the taxation of digital technologies, or of course on the major issues of the international agenda. And China is going to be at the forefront of that agenda.

I think that European countries are going to share some concerns with the US. To begin with, we share the same conception of the principles and values that unite us, and there will certainly be differences with China in this regard. This Administration will undoubtedly work more comfortably with European allies on security risks such as issues pertaining to cybersecurity, but also to the space race and the militarisation of space. At the same time, the EU will have a wide margin to collaborate with the US Administration and with China simultaneously on major global issues such as climate change, an open trade order, or the prevention of health risks and pandemics.

Therefore, it will be a dialogue in which Europeans are not going to agree on everything with the US, but one in which there will be a willingness to cooperate on many issues. On other matters we will cooperate with like-minded countries such as Canada, Japan, Australia, and South Korea among others, and finally we will also work with countries which are not like-minded but that are indeed key actors of the international system, as is the case of China.

In your latest book, you emphasize how China is both an authoritarian system and an economic success, thus presenting itself as an alternative model to liberal democracy. What significance can this ideological challenge have?

I think that the ideological agenda is going to become increasingly salient and it is undoubtedly an issue that separates us from China, and it will have to be managed in a way in which we can live with our differences as we cannot aspire to change the Chinese system. We do not have the capacity or the power to do so. But we must endeavour to defend ourselves from an undue influence from China on our democratic systems. This line of work is going to be increasingly important. Likewise, we will have to transcend these ideological differences so that they do not take over the entire agenda of the relationship with China, which, as I said before, is a complex relationship. We must operate within this complexity, as we cannot use simplifying schemes such as that of the Cold War with two blocks facing each other in an existential fight which could only end with the victory of one block over the other. In this sense, we must consider further the manner in which we can coexist with China, taking into account our differences as well as the areas of commonality that we share.

On the other hand, China has indeed shown that it is a successful model in the economic sphere, even though it is not a democratic system. So, what does this mean for the rest of us, including the European countries? Well, I think that it has to drive us to compete better and to demonstrate to other countries that democracies can have the capacity for economic growth, for eliminating poverty, for extending well-being, and at the same time to preserve freedoms and the rights of citizens.

In relation to this point, at the end of last December, the EU and China reached an agreement on the CAI, although this agreement was not without controversy. In a context in which Angela Merkel argues that "this contradiction between the values we share, and the interests we have [...[ that's the point where we will always have to make political trade-offs" and in which Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing and an adviser to the State Council, China's cabinet, says that "On labor it's impossible for China to agree [...]. Can you imagine China with independent labour unions? Forced labour also relates to Xinjiang, so that’s another ‘no’ for China." I think it is worth reflecting on the question of how Europe can approach these kinds of issues with China when it seems that there are no possible compromises, at least on the Chinese side. What is your opinion on the matter?

To begin with, let us see how this debate develops in the European Parliament in the coming months.

In the agreement that was reached in December 2020, China consented to "make continued and sustained efforts to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) fundamental Conventions on forced labour", and it is in this way that we can possibly attain progress. But I think that we Europeans have to be aware of the limits of the influence that we can bring about with an investment agreement in order to achieve structural changes in the Chinese system.

Therefore, I think that we have to be aware of our limitations. In international deal-making, the usual pattern is that a compromise reached is never 100% satisfactory for one side or the other, yet those are the commitments that allow us to preserve our values ​​and promote our interests. We must always balance what this agreement means against the absence of any agreement and assess if we are really making progress or not.

Finally, I would like to retrieve a few words from former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel: "China is the only country that is pursuing a long-term political goal." In Europe, where should we look?

Sigmar Gabriel was referring to the Belt and Road Initiative, a huge project in both its ambition and global reach. At first, it recreated the ancient Silk Road, but then it spread throughout Africa and Latin America, on continents where it never previously existed.

I think that at the EU level, we have an important debate pertaining to our 'strategic autonomy', a concept that has been expanding and now encompasses many areas like the use of the euro, our digital model and even a more active industrial policy in which we can promote 'European champions' in new technologies. But we cannot aspire to total independence either. In an interdependent world, we also have to work with other actors, some which are like-minded and others which are less so.

I believe that European strategic autonomy is our great project for the coming years and I hope that, if we continue to develop it, we will be able to leave our mark on the international order in a positive sense, not only for the benefit of Europeans but also for the international community as a whole because Europe will always be more comfortable in an open and rule-based international order.

This interview was conducted by Patrizia Cogo, President of European Guanxi. The English translation of this interview was completed with assistance from Calvin Olivier, lead Editor of European Guanxi’s Editorial Team. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the interviewed and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.


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