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Markus Taube: "Unobserved to us, in the Digital Sphere, China is Already Here"

Disclaimer: this interview took place before the German federal elections.

Prof. Dr. Markus Taube holds the Chair for East Asian Economic Studies / China as a faculty member of the Mercator School of Management. He is the Director of the Institute of East Asian Studies (IN-EAST) at the University of Duisburg-Essen as well as a Co-Director of the Confucius Institute Metropolis Ruhr. Markus Taube has been appointed to Visiting Professor positions at Nankai University, Tianjin, PR China, (2014-2017 "1000 Plan", 2019-2022); Ca`Foscari University, Venice, Italy (2015-2016); Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, PR China (2017-2020); Jilin University, Changchun, PR China (2017-2022), as well as Wuhan University, PR China (2018-permanent).

Markus Taube © DUE / CC-BY /

Professor Taube, I would like to start by thanking you for taking time in your busy agenda to have this interview with European Guanxi. For European Guanxi, and for myself, it is a privilege to be able to discuss and reflect with you on China and the EU.

Now, for my first question, I would like to talk with you about Germany and the approaching German federal election. Germany, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been the leading force behind the engagement between the EU with China in many respects, particularly economic . How do you believe the next German federal elections will impact this trend in the EU - considering many aspects like the death of German Ambassador to China, Jan Hecker, a few days after the beginning of his mandate, the EU Parliament report on Taiwan, and the recent release of an Indo-Pacific strategy? Is it possible to foresee some changes or constants both at the country and European level? And could you please walk us through the positions of the German parties towards China, in order for us to grasp the bigger picture of all the possible implications in the relations with China according to which one will win the elections?

Fantastic question to start with. I think there will be some changes. There might be substantial changes on the German side, but in how far they will be reflected in the European dimension is a different question. Let's simply start with Germany. In recent years, the Merkel government has actually been very positive in terms of trying to engage with China in a cooperative alliance or cooperative arrangement. Conflictual issues, like human rights, Taiwan, etc., have been mostly addressed when the media were out of the room. Yet the most important parameter directing the political exchange was probably the economic connections. This has changed only recently when the belief in a systemic convergence of China towards Western norms fell apart.

The late Mr. Jan Hecker would have, as German ambassador in Beijing, been a force of stability and continuity of Ms. Merkel’s strategy of striving for a win-win relationship with China. He had been Merkel's top foreign policy man and very influential in political strategy and implementation. With him gone, the relationship towards China will change.

In recent years the climate has changed dramatically. Public sentiment towards China has deteriorated, media coverage is predominantly negative and political parties campaign with anti-China slogans.

The Christian Democrats (CDU) have, however, been quite non-vocal, still stressing the economic dimension and raising the humanitarian and the political issues like Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, only behind doors. This is likely to change. Although the CDU is still focusing on economic cooperation, it is forced by the general public opinion and virulent anti-China sentiment to shift towards a more confrontational stance. We can see a trend through all German parties to adopt a tougher stance vis à vis China, and engage in a more vocal confrontation with China. The notion of a win-win is becoming weaker. Now this is probably the most obvious with the FDP, the Free Liberals, and the Green Party. The FDP leadership seems to bear some personal grudges resulting from when a FDP delegation to China was publicly dressed down by a local CPC cadre a couple of years ago. The FDP has put up China as a major topic of their election campaign this year. The Green Party has very adamantly spoken up against Chinese human rights abuses and the country’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy. But the Green Party will probably soften their stance against China over time as they need China in their fight against climate change. If we look at the Social Democrats, SPD, they will also look for more confrontation, pushing the humanitarian labor norm issues. We are talking about the supply chain law here, which has just been passed in Germany. Right now, the supply chain law, if you look at it in detail, is not hurting firms too much, because it's only relevant for very large companies. And these large companies already have in place quite strong CSR regulation. With the Social Democrats in power, I could imagine that the supply chain law will be amended and that we will see stricter enforcement with a larger number of firms affected. Such developments might seriously impede bilateral trade relations.

So whatever we see, all parties are getting tougher against China. There will be more confrontation, and less willingness to achieve win-win situations.

Transferring these developments to the European level, we may see the rise of a new situation where Germany converges with the French approach and both countries unite behind a tougher, more assertive stance towards China. The Italy of the Draghi government, on the other hand, may take over the former German position and provide for a more win-win oriented exchange forum with China. In any case, in my opinion the only way forward lies in an assertive European approach that is combined with effective EU-China alliance building in those policy fields where we have joint interests – like climate change - and a pragmatic quest for win-win situations wherever they may be.

According to what you have just said, and the favourites at the German federal elections, do you think that China’s strategy towards the EU will change depending on the results of the German federal elections?

I do not really think so. If we look at the developments of the recent past, I wonder to what extent is China still taking the EU and independent European countries as an independent player. I have the impression that there is an attitude in China to simply say, well, Europe, in the end, is going to do what the Americans want. And if this is the case, then we have no negotiation power. And China does not have to adjust to anything which is happening in one member country of the EU. So, what I actually expect is that China will try to continue with what it has done in the past and will first of all focus on the US in all its policy strategizing.

It is only in a few areas where Europe is of major interest to China. That is first of all the struggle against climate change, the fight for multilateralism as a key concept in global governance. Similar interests may also exist in context of the required reforms of WTO and other supranational organisations.

Considering the EU-China relations in the international scenario, we can’t help but talk about the influence of the US. The Build Back a Better World (B3W) seems to be designed as an alternative to the Belt and Road initiative in the Middle East. How do you think, considering the present evolution of events in the Middle East region, this initiative will or could impact on the relations between the EU and China?

Well, if you look at the last 10 years of New Silk Road building, then until very recently, the major powers operating there have been China, Europe and Russia to a certain degree. But, let's just focus on China and Europe. Of course, China has been the dominant proactive player, but Europe has been trying to engage China and the Central Asian countries, in order to project its own values and (technical) norms. The European approach has been a constructive one – not trying to stop Chinese initiatives, but rather to complement them, provide alternatives and compete. The US-American approach in comparison has been predominantly destructive. Take the Blue Dot Network as an example. That has been an initiative to undermine Chinese project activity by assessing the latter on the basis of a set of normative criteria determined in Washington. Any company or NGO engaging in a negatively assessed project would have run into danger of being punished (e.g. boycotted, sanctioned) by the US government. As such, the Blue Dot Network was an instrument to undermine the BRI by raising investors’ uncertainty, risks, and public acceptance in general. What we're seeing right now, with the Build Back A Better World (B3W) initiative is that out of this Blue Dot network evolves a much more constructive approach. America is now committed to actively involve itself in infrastructure development in the region and provide local firms and governments with an alternative to Chinese offers. That means, America is coming back to the region. This is good news for Europe, which now has a partner who shares more of its values than China. So there will be synergies in their goals implementation. On the other hand however, and this has become crystal clear in the Trump years as well as in the first year of the Biden administration: the US has its very own interests and some of its goals are not of a shared interest with Europe.

So now I think we have three major powers which are vying for influence and are trying to transport their own values and technology standards into the region. This is China; this is Europe and America, and America is going to become stronger and stronger over the years. So in a certain way, I think it's very hard to determine what the net effect for Europe will be. On the one hand, I think it will have a positive effect in driving back Chinese influence taking in the region, that will certainly happen. On the other hand, it will also impact European values and interest projection in the region.

Since we have introduced the subject, what state is the Belt and Road Initiative at today? During the purge of the pandemic, we have witnessed a reverse gear and friction in China’s deployment of the initiative, to the point where the focus of the BRI has been moved towards a “health silk road”. Moreover, in the last few years we have seen new Chinese movements towards the EU moving along the BRI, with particular focus on Greece, Italy and Portugal. Do you think China is still walking on that path or is it changing its strategy?

Well, this is a very good question. Let me start with the health strategy. When we first observed the Chinese initiative to engage with the region by providing vaccines, face masks and other medical equipment, that looked like a perfect strategy to gain influence and attain soft power in the region. Since then, our assessment has sobered up quite a bit. The Chinese vaccines are of significantly lower quality and protective power than BioNTech, Moderna. The mask deals have become tainted by massive quality problems etc. So, all in all I think the whole dynamic and positive narrative of the Health Silk Road has already disintegrated.

What I think is much more important and something we in Europe have ignored or not realised for many years is the implementation of a Digital Silk Road. On the foundation of the physical infrastructure-based Silk Road, China has managed to build a digital infrastructure based on Chinese technology standards (Huawei, ZTE, and others) and accommodating Chinese business models and interests (Alibaba’s eWTP, Chinese logistics providers, banks, etc.). In this way, Chinese players have already set up a comprehensive digital economy realm governed by Chinese technology, norms, standards and business usances. We are talking about the threat of Chinese governance building on an international scale and the danger of our norms and values being crowded out by the Chinese. But we usually just look at the traditional economy and its ordering structures, where we come to the conclusion that Chinese influences are still weak. But unobserved to us, in the digital sphere China is already there! I have the impression that people in Europe have completely neglected these developments. It is this field where I see the greatest challenge for European business in the coming years.

With the adoption of a resolution on January 21, 2021, the European Parliament has encouraged the European Commission and the EEAS to create a global EU Connectivity Strategy as an extension of the current EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy in order to align the Union’s connectivity philosophy and policies. In consideration of all these aspects, do you perceive the global EU Connectivity Strategy as a plausible attempt from the EU to strengthen its role in Asia and strengthen ties with democracies in the area from the perspective of the EU’s relation with China, both as a strategic partner and rival?

I think it's a very good strategy. It's probably the only thing we as a European Union can do. We are not in a position to project any power. We are much too weak there. We must entice other societies and politicians to look at our norms, our values, our systems, and we must prove that ours are, if not superior, then at least very good. I think the connectivity strategy, especially if it targets the “in between countries” and promotes their socio-economic development, is a very powerful means. I don't think that the connectivity strategy will have too much impact on China per se. It will have an impact on the third countries.

But in the end, it's not the amount of public money we spend there for infrastructure, new railway tracks or whatever. In the end, it will be decisive in how far this seed money by the European Union entices European firms, companies, to engage in this region. What we need are actually firms and entrepreneurs who see a chance to expand their European business models and engage in the Silk Road region. This is how Europe can check excessive Chinese influence taking on developments there – not simply by funding some project, putting up a sign saying "Funded by the European Union", and then leave. The only thing that really works is to have this kind of investment, and using this to catalyse European investment and business engagement in this region. That's the only sustainable approach to introduce our values and our systemic approach to life; to societal organisation, and democracy to these countries. No other way.

This interview was conducted by Alessia Paolillo, co-founder and Head of European Guanxi's Strategic Communications Team, with the support of Ilaria Tassari and Marta Quadrini Mosca Moschini.

Alessia Paolillo graduated with honours both from her bachelor and master’s degrees in Oriental Languages at the university of Rome La Sapienza. She then obtained a second Master's degree in International Public Affairs at the University Luiss Guido Carli. She currently works in the think tank CeSI - Center for International Studies. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the interviewed and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.


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