Director of Foreign Policy, Fundación Alternativas
an strategy be made on the fly? The Spanish president’s proverbial “political waist” at home – forging impossible alliances for last-minute victories – is put to the test in the visit to China. It remains to be seen how Sanchez conjugates Arms and Peace, Otanism and Europeanism, Davos and anti-Davos (the Boao Economic Forum), Democracies and Autocracies. The Ying and Yang of politics.
Before the pandemic, it would have made a lot of sense to fly to China strictly on bilateral terms to reverse the trade deficit, achieve advantages for consulting firms, tourism, invest in hydroelectric, or renewables. All of that is necessary. But now there is no room for short-sightedness, or for the nostalgia of fifty years of diplomatic relations. Geopolitics, new rules and alliances, from the environment to technology, mark every move. Everything is happening under immense pressure from Washington’s political establishment to punish and isolate China. Biden and many European hawks are watching closely.
On that plane, the Spanish government carries with it two seemingly contradictory ideas. The first is of a “systemic rival” China (an unfortunate U.S. loan that the European Commission and the Foreign Service embraced). More so now that Xi Jin Ping’s hand still holds the warmth of the handshake with Putin. The second idea is the one that President Sanchez himself has placed at the center of the Spanish presidency of the EU this year: to advance in the so-called European “open strategic autonomy”. Which, translated into Mandarin Chinese, has to mean the broadening of our alliances and more multilateralism – despite the ill winds of a new cold war – in a world order that tends towards multipolarity and the Pacific. How to combine both in an optimal way?
The underlying question that this trip will leave is whether it will bring any gains in strategic terms. We do not know how exactly China and Russia’s relationship will develop after the war in Ukraine. Possibly Xi’s China will turn Russia into a junior partner, a “protectorate” providing cheap energy, a support in financial and commercial transactions, and a security buffer against NATO and the US. The only thing we know is that Europe can and should concentrate on building its own capabilities.
That is why President Sanchez is right to propose an “open” autonomy for the EU – as opposed to a more “closed” version of Macron’s 27. Now, by “open” we can’t just mean cooperation with the US, UK or Australia in defense, technology, energy, food or health. It has to say: open also to China.
In Xi’s new China, everything is politics. That is why our companies can aspire to gain presence if the right strategic approach to Beijing is adopted. Initiation is not so difficult: with respect and patience. Form is the bottom line. From there, everything is open.
Caution is obligatory: the uncertainty regarding Ukraine or Taiwan does not leave much room for improvisation. Our super-member status as a NATO super-member narrows the margin. But this should not prevent us, like Spain, from moving in a relatively autonomous orbit with respect to the Baltic, Nordic or Polish countries. In a Europe that in turn intends to move autonomously with respect to the United States, which unfortunately sometimes occasionally becomes a toxic ally.
This journey must accelerate a Plan B. In the critical period covering the second half of this year, a framework for negotiation could begin to open up, where China and Europe can act as facilitators. Military, economic and social fatigue will take their toll. Even Zelensky himself is threatening to jump on this train, to avoid a useless destruction of the country and a thirty-year war. President Sanchez, and with him Spain and Europe, have the option – at a time of vacuum of European leadership – to make visible the first serious contacts for peace. The other option is to settle for more of the same and risk an uncontrollable drift towards war. Fortunately, peace sells well: in an election year as difficult as this one, public opinion will always follow it.
China and Spain share two things in common. One, that the war be diplomatically channeled as soon as possible, in the most balanced way. Our common fundamental anchor has to be territorial integrity and sovereignty. This is precisely the first point of the Chinese document on Ukraine, which is not a peace plan, not a point of arrival, but a starting position. It is the basic principle of external non-interference enshrined in China’s own Constitution. The second is to prevent a “cold war mentality” from materializing – something that could alienate our relations with Latin America and Africa, and leave Europe boxed in the new international order.
Spain can put its stamp, its own geopolitical vision on Europe. But for that to happen, it is necessary to establish a constructive relationship with China, resisting external pressures (and domestic ones: will the PP also call Xi an autocrat? ). Betting on exchanges and Chinese tourism (with more than one million visitors a year to our country) and the expansion of the Spanish language inevitably take on a greater dimension, in a certain civilising sense. It also means moving away from a rigid decoupling between West and East that feeds on cheap ideology; from a pre-fabricated confrontation between good and evil, between Democracies and Autocracies, under the din of doomsayers and certain war lobbies. Sometimes, in international politics, it is also necessary to take risks.
Europe is going to talk about open strategic autonomy at a summit in Granada next October. By then, the Spanish government could recover some souvenirs from this trip.
The first one is that Spain and Europe have to reposition themselves strategically and elaborate a Plan B for post-war Ukraine where China has a constructive role.
Also, from the Boao Asian Forum, Spain could promote the resumption of the EU-China Investment Agreement – blocked for two years – this time from a new perspective. With Beijing there is room to propose trade with greater added value, in new sectors, and new rules. China is no longer the world’s factory. At the same time, it is necessary to overcome US pressures and counteract Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.
Another aspect has to do with incorporating China and Asia into the equation of global development and value chains. Of course, both Europeans and Chinese have to make many adjustments: in unfulfilled promises, in debt, or environmental sustainability. But it makes no sense to compete for the welfare of others, pitting the European Global Gateway project against the Belt and Road or the Global Security Initiative promoted by China. Especially in Latin America: addressing debt, infrastructure, or digital divides is in the interest of all of us. We need to work on a common language to make the goals of the 2030 Agenda a reality.
It is better to talk.
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