"The partnership with China is indispensable"

Interview with the Director-General at the Federal Foreign Office "The partnership with China is indispensable"

The partnership with China must be "maintained and expanded," says Petra Sigmund, Director-General for Asia and the Pacific at the Federal Foreign Office, in the run-up to the EU-China Summit. In this interview she also explains why relations between the EU and China play a particularly important role during Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union.                                       

Petra Sigmund

Petra Sigmund is Director-General for Asia and the Pacific at the Federal Foreign Office

Photo: Auswärtige Amt

Ms Sigmund, how have relations between the EU and China evolved over the years? 

Sigmund: From a European point of view, our partnership with China is indispensable and must be maintained and expanded in many areas – from the economy to the need to address global challenges. Parallel to this, China has become a serious economic competitor for the EU over the years. Competition is a good thing – provided it complies with fair rules.  We need to pay far closer attention to this now than we have in the past, since China is hot on our heels in some areas.

In addition, there are some fields in which China holds views that are very different to those of the European Union, and where it is actively seeking allies, including human rights issues and with respect to the international order. That is what is meant when the EU describes China today not only as a partner and competitor, but also as a "systemic rival". 

For many years now negotiations have been ongoing China on an investment agreement with China. Why is this agreement important for Germany and the EU? 

Sigmund: Although a great deal of progress has been made over the last forty years, European companies still have only very restricted access to the Chinese market. By contrast, the EU is a very open market, also for Chinese companies, although investment control has been stepped up recently. The stronger China becomes as an economic power and competitor for a leading position in the world, the less justification there is for this asymmetry between China and Europe.

The investment agreement is thus to bring the general conditions for investing in China into line with those in place in the EU. Both sides have set themselves the goal of concluding negotiations by the end of 2020 – after seven years. It is important that this deadline is not simply pushed back again and again. What is even more important, however, is to achieve the right outcome, that genuinely gives European businesses a greater scope to invest in China. 

What other issues would Germany like to make progress on at European level with China during its Presidency of the Council of the European Union?

Sigmund: For the German Presidency of the Council of the European Union we have undertaken to agree on more ambitious cooperation between the EU and China in the field of climate action, and to work together to make an important contribution to overcoming COVID-19.

Within the EU we want to position ourselves better in a number of policy fields so that we can respond to the challenges China poses. They include moving towards greater European sovereignty in key technologies, strengthening the EU’s external relations through far-reaching cooperation with partners in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and diversifying the EU’s external trade through closer economic interpenetration of important growth markets in Asia.

One major part of the EU’s strategy on China, however, is that the EU stands up for its convictions when central European values and interests, such as human rights and respecting international agreements, are adversely affected by China. We must take a resolute stance here within both a bilateral and a multilateral framework. 

On 14 September, Chancellor Angela Merkel is taking part in a virtual EU-China meeting. Charles Michel, President of the European Council and Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission are hosting the talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.