China and the World

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Why so many high-level Chinese visits to Europe?

Help, s’il vous plait

Kong Quan met Hollande first

On Monday, within hours of beating Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Hollande had his first meeting with a foreign ambassador. The South China Morning Post reports that France’s new president chose to see Kong Quan, from China.

That’s telling – for France, and for Europe as a whole. And the interest in closer ties goes both ways, following Chinese media comments that a “record number” of senior level politicians from Beijing have travelled to the EU in recent weeks too.

Li Changchun (“the propaganda chief” in Western media-speak) was in the UK for four days in April, only shortly after Liu Yandong (“China’s highest-ranking female politician”) had made a similar trip.

Premier Wen Jiabao also toured four European countries last month, and vice premier Li Keqiang was next to visit, heading to Belgium and Hungary in the first week of May.

Chen Bing, a former Chinese ambassador in Europe and now a national media commentator on foreign affairs, told Shenzhen TV that the flurry of visits was a counter-punch to US policy towards China, which has taken on a more assertive tone.

Chen also thinks the charm offensive is designed to give the Europeans China’s point-of-view on issues as diverse as its claims to islands in the South China Sea through to why Bo Xilai’s ousting as Party chief in Chongqing should be seen as a boost for the rule of law.

Deeper relations with the Europeans are also being pitched as a way of influencing US thinking, Chen says. Britain, in particular, is seen as a restraining influencing and as a “bridge of communication” between China and the US.

British diplomats will be raising a glass of sherry to that, old chap. But WiC wonders if the former ambassador might be a few years behind the times – especially in his view that Beijing has reached a “tacit understanding” with London on how best to deal with tensions in the South China Sea.

That sounds unlikely. Britain gave up any real presence in the region when it relinquished Hong Kong.

No doubt the Chinese visitors had another issue on their minds: the eurozone debt crisis, which policymakers in Beijing view almost equally as an opportunity and a threat.

For instance, sections of the Chinese press were rubbing their hands this week with the view that Europe needs good relations with China much more than before.

But the Chinese won’t want to see a financial meltdown in their leading marketplace. Indeed some of the coverage of the official trips to Europe reads more like a pep talk, designed to bolster fragile confidence. In a self-penned piece in the Financial Times, Li Keqiang lauded the “tremendous courage” shown by the EU in fighting its financial crisis, while Wen Jiabao tried to rally spirits with a declaration that China was a firm supporter of European integration and was ready to play its “due role” in responding to its debt crisis.

Of course, there has been talk about a bailout for a while (see WiC122), but the Chinese proviso has long been that the locals must get their own house into better order before capital can be committed.

Even if this was to happen there would need to be a quid pro quo, and one theme mentioned during the recent trips to Europe – an increase in high-tech exports to China – is likely to be high on the agenda.

Probably backed by a sense that the Europeans could be more flexible than the Americans (high-tech exports were discussed with the US delegation at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing last week too, see page 5), Li Keqiang returned to the topic in his FT article, with a claim that each extra percentage point in high-tech sales would bring €2.2 billion in revenues.

That message was clear enough, although Li may have bamboozled his readers by dropping in a Chinese proverb: “It may rain in your courtyard but not in the street outside. On a hundred mile journey, you will find wind coming from different directions.”

A few more trips might be required to explain the meaning of that one.

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