home  › Business and economy

China’s investments in Europe emphasize the growing importance of a strategic partnership

by Nicola Casarini* and Rita Fatiguso**

On May 6, 1975, forty years ago, in the wake of the thaw in relations between Washington DC and Beijing, and without much fanfare, Brussels and China established diplomatic relations.

It was certainly a different period in history. The European Community was in its infancy, China was a poor country, in the midst of a power struggle for the succession to Mao Zedong who, already very sick, died the following year.

Today, the relations between Europe and China are among the world's most important, having taken on such a strategic importance that they are the object of close scrutiny - and sometimes apprehension - by the United States.

Just think of Washington's disapproval when four important EU countries - Germany, France, Great Britain and Italy - joined as founding partners the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the multilateral bank promoted by Beijing.

The turning point between Brussels and Beijing goes back to 2003 and the signing of a strategic partnership: the various parties reached an agreement on the joint development of Galileo, the European satellite navigation system and alternative to the American GPS, and the foundations were laid for improved relations in the field of security and the defence industry. Germany and France took the lead, but Italy and Spain were with them, and they proposed to begin discussions to lift the embargo on arms sales to China.

While the European Union was enlarged to include Central-Eastern European countries, Brussels became the most important trading partner of Beijing, while China climbed to second place as the most important trading partner of the EU, just behind the United States.

The Europeans were, however, unable to agree on the embargo issue, and the European Council in June 2005 decided to postpone indefinitely the solution, leaving the Beijing leaders with a bitter taste in their mouth.

Even the euro played an important role in the relationships between China and Europe. In 2003 the European Central Bank and the Chinese one signed an agreement that led Beijing to diversify their basket of reserves, increasing in a gradual but constant manner in the coming years their exposure to the common European currency, while reducing their exposure towards the dollar.

China supported the euro during the sovereign debt crisis to accelerate the shift against the dollar when, in August 2011, Standard & Poor's downgraded the sovereign rating of the United States: the growth in the share of reserves held in the common European currency went from approximately 26% in 2011 to approximately one third at the beginning of 2015.

What's more, two years ago, for the first time, the European Central bank signed an historic contract with the People's Bank of China that opened a swap line in renminbi between these two areas of the world to facilitate investments in both directions, despite the non-convertibility of the Chinese currency.

China is investing heavily in European companies to acquire know-how and technology that is necessary to modernize Chinese industry.

At the end of 2014, it made purchases through SAFE (State Administration of Foreign Exchange, ed.'s note), the administrative agency governing foreign exchange market activities, for about $ 54 billion in listed companies on European stock markets, ranking fifth for the size of the investment, just behind Japan.

It is worth noting that the total invested in Italy today amounts to more than € 6 billion, which corresponds to 7% of the total Chinese investments in Europe. The recent interest for Italy and, more generally, for Southern Europe is part of a wider project by Beijing to develop a 21st century land and maritime Silk Road, launched by the Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.

Today the European Union is the largest trading partner of Beijing and the Mediterranean, with Italy at its centre, is considered a natural landing stage of this strategy.

Italy has, therefore, the possibility to become an important interlocutor for Beijing. The appointment of an Italian, Federica Mogherini, as head of European diplomacy, has certainly played its role in this (Editor's note: today the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy makes her first visit to Beijing, for EU-China strategic discussions and for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the official establishment of the EU-China diplomatic relations) while there is a growing interest for Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's government and his reform projects for the country.

The 40th anniversary that the EU Vice President will celebrate in the Chinese capital coincides with an important note on the strategic agenda of cooperation between the European Union and China valid until 2020, signed in Beijing in November 2013: the possible closure of European Union-China bilateral negotiations on investments.

A turning point that could open the way, as expressly requested by Xi Jinping during his first visit in Europe and to the European institutions last year, to a free-trade agreement that would introduce a new dynamic in the Sino-European relations. It would create an equally significant Euro-Asiatic axis, both economically and commercially, to the Atlantic and Pacific one. Forty years later, therefore, the sides seem to be reversed, with the EU acting as a trailblazer with respect to the discussions between China and Washington.

*Senior Fellow for East Asia at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI)

** Il Sole 24 Ore China chief bureau Beijing