The Dilemma of Strategic Autonomy: Pandemic Challenges in the EU’s Interaction with China and Japan
During the implementation of the EU-Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), the European Union (EU) and Japan held a series of webinars about COVID-19, covering green recovery, business, digitalization of society, public health, international trade, etc. Similarly, the EU Delegation to China hosted a seminar bearing upon green recovery and green stimulus in the post COVID era. Both China and Japan occupy an important place in the EU’s agenda of pandemic control and economic recovery. This paper will look into the challenges posed by the pandemic in the EU’s interactions with China and Japan.
The EU’s interest in cooperating with Asian players can be easily understood. After a decrease in daily cases in China and Japan, these two countries have begun recovering, enabling the EU to engage economically as market power and promote its values as a normative power. For China, the number of new daily cases has remained below 200 since March 2020. In Japan, after remaining stable in 2020, the number of new daily cases came to a peak in January 2021 and decreased to the level of 2020. As for the situation in Europe, after increasing from September 2020 onwards, the number of new daily cases in 2021 is still above the 2020 level.
Moreover, England’s new coronavirus variant increases the difficulty of curbing the pandemic in the EU. Due to the pandemic’s different trends, Asian players like Japan and China can start the recovery process earlier, which opens a window for the EU’s engagement. In terms of trade relations, China, with its economic power and market volume, was the second most important export destination of the EU, making up 11% of EU exports in 2019. Following China, Japan is the 6th largest EU trading partner in terms of exports. Considering that China and Japan are the top two players in the EU’s export market, such an intensified trade relation determines the EU’s opportunities amid China’s and Japan’s recoveries.
Challenges regarding liberal values in EU-Japan interactions
The EU is a normative power whose norms can always be demonstrated in its engagement with Japan. In 2018, when President Trump challenged the multilateral international order with his unilateral policies, it was less likely for the EU to conclude the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US. In the context of rising unilateralism and protectionism, the cooperation between the EU and Japan is not only important for bilateral trade but also upholds liberal values, which is also why the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) is considered “the most important bilateral trade agreement ever concluded by the European Union”.
Both the EU and Japan are dedicated to upholding liberal values in the recovery agenda. As Japan’s Environment Minister Koizumi Shinjiro announced, Japan regards sustainable development as a core part of its recovery plan. In the context of the pandemic, Japan has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. The timing perfectly indicated the country’s willingness to treat climate as an engine in its economic recovery. The EU also shares this idea of green growth. Following the Paris Agreement and the European Green Deal, the EU has been acting as a climate leader, framing the norm of sustainable development into trade, security and other policy fields. The EU’s recovery plan clearly defines “greener Europe” as an objective, with 30% of the EU funds, the highest share ever of the European budget, dedicated to fighting climate change. The convergence over the role of climate concerns in post-COVID recovery strengthens common grounds of value-based cooperation between the two parties.
However, value-based cooperation is challenged by the context of COVID-19. Economic dependence on strategic products may hamper EU-Japan relations. As the host country of the Olympic games, Japan expected an economic boost of $294 billion for its national economy from 2013 to 2030. However, following their
postponement, the Tokyo Olympics have already cost more than 200% of the expected amount and have become the most expensive Summer Games on record. The tremendous input of human and economic resources makes their cancellation less affordable. Moreover, in the case of cancellation, China would capture the global spotlight with the 2022 Winter Olympics while Japan would lose the opportunity to publicize its victory of pandemic control. Due to the necessity of hosting the Olympics in 2021, Japan has attached great importance to COVID vaccination. Yet, and although Japan has already ordered vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, public vaccination is still proceeding at a slow pace, casting doubt about the Olympics.
As for the EU, after experiencing a shortage of medical equipment, the risk of global supply chains has made the it question its liberal trade values, especially in the field of strategic products, with the emergence of a re-nationalization trend. With the feature of “EU first”, the transparency mechanism specifies that exports of EU-made vaccines outside of the EU require the authorisation of a Member State.
The EU vaccine strategy prioritizes timely access to vaccines for all EU citizens, hampering the vaccination agenda in Japan. According to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the vaccination campaign was due to start in mid-February while the EU mechanism remains effective from 29 January to 30 June 2021. Under the transparency mechanism, the EU reserves the right to curb vaccine exports in the case of vaccine supply shortage inside the EU, casting more uncertainty over the vaccination schedule in Japan. Taro Kono, minister in charge of vaccination in Japan, has called the transparency and authorisation mechanism a form of “vaccine nationalism” which influences an already contracted vaccine supply and goes against the value of liberalization.
Confrontation of European values and Chinese assertiveness
With a different political system, China is defined as a systematic rival by the EU, which is evident in the pandemic context. As the chronologically first victim of COVID-19, China has carried out strict measures to fight the pandemic. Measures such as the Wuhan lockdown and software surveillance have proven to be effective, which can be noticed by the decrease in daily cases in China.
The pandemic has deepened divergences of values between the EU and China. Taking software surveillance as an example, the use of personal data to assess transmission risks is a compromise between public interest and personal interest. The health code provided by software came into nationwide application because a green code is mandatory for entering public places and taking public transportation in China. However, from the EU’s perspective, this policy illustrates the authoritarian nature of the regime and challenges the values of freedom and privacy. Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, thinks that government surveillance software is threatening in terms of human rights, lest the Chinese government may use it to further monitor people.
In terms of diplomacy, China increased its participation in global affairs during the pandemic. Chinese diplomacy stresses the advantage of its governance model which is, compared with liberal democracy within the EU, more effective regarding pandemic control. Faced with criticism about its performance early in the crisis, China has also adopted a “donation diplomacy” with doctors, medical equipment, etc., to improve its international image. After receiving medical assistance from China instead of European partners, Italy no longer thought of China as the origin of COVID-19, but as a friend in a time of dire need. However, the product quality problems spotted in Spain and the Netherlands gives the impression that China is assertive in battles of narratives but careless about real medical troubles in the EU. Following concerns about the Chinese governance model and China’s behaviour with the pandemic, the divergence of value system has broadened. Amid discontent in the EU, China is defending its national interest in an assertive, strident and proactive way, deteriorating its image. According to a survey about public opinion on China in 13 European countries, respondents in 10 countries have expressed significantly negative views.
The deepening divergence of values leads to the difficulty of cooperation in economic recovery. The EU pays attention to promote its norms in other policy fields such as the recovery plan to assure consistency. In the EU-China leaders’ meeting, although both parties have agreed on shared responsibility in the COVID response, the EU has also expressed concerns over human rights issues in Xinjiang. However, it is difficult for all EU Member States to be consistent with their value promotion in external actions. For instance, amid dissatisfaction with the link between budget and respect for rules of law, Hungary and Poland vetoed the Union’s budget and recovery plan. Externally, the two parties hold different views towards human rights. Judging from the EU’s claims in the meeting, it can be seen that the EU perceives human rights as an internationalised issue, while China replied that the Xinjiang issue belongs to China’s internal affairs and shall allow no interference of other parties. The challenge of promoting human rights through the COVID response is an example of the two parties’ different foreign policy orientations: the EU is more value-based, which means that even in the context of economic recession, the long-term promotion of values is still superior to short-term economic needs; while China stresses a more pragmatic position, able to control the pandemic and help the economy recover with assertive measures.
The different policy orientations result from the different toolboxes possessed by China and the EU. For China, the nature of authoritarian regime entitles the Chinese government to more leverage in pandemic control. With a simple decision-making process, it takes less time to apply effective measures, even assertive ones. Different from a nation state with military power, the EU is based on the concession of sovereignty from its Member States, which means less hard power in diplomacy. This explains the importance of value promotion in its external actions.
The COVID-19 era: the EU’s shift towards strategic autonomy?
Resource shortage during the pandemic has sparked awareness of strategic autonomy in the EU. As a response to risks of reliance on imports, the idea of strategic autonomy raised during the pandemic advocates the re-localisation of strategic production and the diversification of supply chains. China is targeted by the idea of strategic autonomy in as much as a shortage of medical equipment is related to the EU’s imports from China. In the New Industrial Strategy for Europe, the European Commission believes that Europe should bring more manufacturing back to the EU in some sectors. However, re-localisation will highly reduce economic ties with third countries and even decrease the EU’s opportunity of value promotion.
It is not likely that the EU will extend its trading relations with Japan, for the following two reasons. Firstly, Japan shares the same liberal values. Instead of a production-oriented model, Japan has built close trade relations with the EU in various fields such as green technology, conforming to the strategic and value-based pursuit of the EU. Faced with rising unilateralism and protectionism, the EU would further destabilize the liberal order in crisis if it distanced itself from a like-minded partner. Secondly, the Japanese side would not accept such distancing in the post COVID era. As the host country of the 2021 Olympics, Japan can only rely on vaccination to organise the Olympics, which have already consumed tremendous economic resources. The EU’s strategic autonomy can influence Japan’s vaccination agenda, which shows that strategic autonomy cannot be separated from international supply chains.
The EU encounters a similar dilemma in its interaction with China because of the gap between its values and China’s assertiveness. In terms of values, China has effectively controlled the pandemic, with some measures which are not accepted by the European side. For the EU, one mode of value projection is to include its values in other policy fields such as trade. Engagement with China offers the EU an opportunity for value promotion while decoupling might not help bridge the value divergence between the two parties. As for China, despite its deteriorating international image, it has increased its influence within the EU by diplomatic means. Faced with China’s assertiveness, the EU’s position should not be decided by other international players if the EU reaches strategic autonomy. However, inside the EU, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic all expressed trust in Chinese vaccines. Relocating industry back to the EU decreases its diplomatic leverage and does not necessarily lessen the influence of Chinese diplomacy.
Richard Youngs, a senior researcher of Carnegie Europe, points out that autonomy is not a one-way street and that building self-sufficiency will lead to less leverage to change other players. The EU’s vaccine strategy illustrates its quest for autonomy, which allows Member States to decide vaccine exports, at the expense of Japan’s vaccination agenda. Reshoring manufacturing from China back to the EU deals with the risks of dependence on China. However, the EU would have less space for conditionality when engaged in value promotion with Beijing. Naturally, the pandemic makes the EU focus on European interests, but strategic autonomy should not become a limit of the EU’s external engagement.
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