While Britain’s attempts to withdraw from the European Union continue to make international headlines, many have correctly pointed out that Chinese media has taken a particular interest in Brexit. While certain racist voices claim that there is something devious behind China’s interest in Brexit, the reality is that for Chinese examining the Brexit phenomenon, the entire matter is a deeply educational experience.
Today, China is opening up its market to more imports than at any time in the history of the PRC, while the Belt and Road initiative seeks to open up new multilateral trading opportunities across the world in the format of a rules based system that respects the sovereignty of all partner nations. Naturally, China is looking to do more trade with Europe – something that has become of particular importance now that Donald Trump’s trade war has placed tariffs on both Chinese and European Union imports to the American market.
The European Union has long prided itself on being a bastion of free trade and economic openness and it goes without saying that such a large economic bloc is one that many important nations seek to trade freely and openly with. But Europe’s internal model as well as its approach to trade tells something of a different story.
While the European Union prides itself on being a peaceful union of free nation-states, increased calls to create a federalised European “superstate” as well as popular discontent throughout the bloc over political, union, monetary union, a common migration policy and alleged acculturation of certain national cultural characteristics, makes it clear that the EU is perceived very different among some of its own increasingly vocal citizens than that which EU officials would like the wider world to believe.
In this respect, China has never commented and certainly will not comment on Europe’s internal matters, but the increasingly visible schism between European peoples and their rulers – a schism most openly expressed during the 2016 Brexit vote, has taught China some important lessons about the need to maintain the Belt and Road initiative as a series of partnerships built upon a collection of peaceful bilateral economic cooperation agreements rather than a single monolithic agreement that is at one time, economic, political, monetary and perhaps even military (as some EU officials seek to create an EU army).
In the second half of the 20th century, much of Asia suffered from grand alliances that linked various forms of collective security into economic and developmental partnerships . Efforts to bind economics and defence together among Cold War alliances resulted in multiple conflicts including the Vietnam-Cambodia conflict, the India-Pakistan conflict, China-Vietnam conflict, the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation and the 1979 war in Afghanistan, to name but a few.
This is why the post-Cold War Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is based on the principle of limiting cooperation to issues of collective agreement and it is furthermore why the SCO has no plans to create a full scale NATO style or Warsaw pact style military alliance. This is for example why the SCO has been reticent to touch the Kashmir conflict between two of its members, India and Pakistan. Although resolving the conflict would penultimately be to the benefit of all SCO members, as the SCO does not seek to impose any security related processes (including peace processes) unilaterally on any member states, thus far the Kashmir crisis has remained one that the group has not directly delved into.
In this sense, China has learned from the EU what not to do with Belt and Road and other multilateral cooperation initiatives in which Beijing plays a key role. More specifically, China has learned that the apolitical nature of Belt and Road and its absence of any defence component will actually help the project to attain the kind of smooth operational longevity that the EU has had trouble achieving due to Brexit as well as other areas of open conflict between EU member states and the EU itself as well as localised conflicts within Europe (the Yellow Vests in France, political instability in Belgium, the Catalan crisis etc.).
That being said, China is happy to work with the EU and would very much like a free trading agreement with Europe. At the same time, China is happy to conduct a separate bilateral free trade agreement with a post-EU Britain. For China, trade is never a zero-sum game.
This leads to the second area in which China seeks to learn from the European experience. While the EU claims it is a torchbearer of global free trade, the reality is that the EU is something of an economic “fortress Europe”. While the EU has a generally smooth running internal single market, the EU tends only to want to sign free trading agreements with countries that have similar economic models and/or statures in the wider world. This for example is why this year the EU signed a trade agreement with economically stagnant Japan (Japan’s economic growth rate is around 1%), while demonstrating cold feet regarding doing a trade deal with the vastly more dynamic and perpetually growing Chinese economy. As the EU itself is not growing economically in as rapid a fashion as the most dynamic economies in Asia, rather than opt to boost its own fortunes by partnering with rapidly growing China, Brussels opted for a far more mundane trading agreement in the form of the deal with a wealthy but economically declining Japan.
In this sense, China is curious as to see whether the EU or a post-EU Britain will be the first to break out of a complacent model of pseudo-free trade and embrace the kind of dynamic win-win trading partnerships of the kind that China enjoys with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
On the whole though, many in China remain perplexed by why the UK would want to leave a major trading bloc that for all of its imperfections still represents a major economic force in the world. In this sense, China seeks to learn ever more about just what continues to motivate both sides in the ongoing Brexit debate to take the positions they have taken.
Therefore, China’s fascination with Brexit boils down to a desire to learn about the perceptions and realities of trade in the west from an anthropological point of view. In this sense, while China wants to trade with Europe as well as a post-EU Britain, China also finds the entire Brexit process an important case study in the same way that for example many in Europe seek to learn more about the history and modern day realities of China’s historic Reform and Opening Up that began in 1978.