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"Strategic Conversation"between Ambassador Zhang Ming and Shada Islam, Friends of Europe

(From Chinese Mission to the European Union)


On 24th April, 2020, Ambassador Zhang Ming, Head of the Chinese Mission to the EU, held an online "strategic dialogue" with Shada, a scholar of the European think tank "Friend of Europe". The following is the transcript:

Shada: Hello, everyone. Welcome to our Strategic Conversation today with Ambassador Zhang Ming. Mr Zhang Ming is Ambassador of China to the Europe Union. Ambassador, we are delighted that you join us for the Strategic Conversation. Thank you very much for being here.

I am Shada Islam. I am Director for Europe and Geopolitics here in Brussels for Friends of Europe. I am teleworking from home. We are still in complete lockdown. I am sure many of you are as well joining us from across the world, from the four corners of the world for this conversation. We actually have four strategic conversations, the first one is with Jaya Ratnam, Ambassador of Singapore to the European Union, and we then have the conversation with Dr. Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (of the United Nations). Just recently, two days ago, we had a conversation with Gunnar Wiegand, Managing Director from European External Action Service for the Asia-Pacific.

Today we have Ambassador Zhang Ming. Ambassador, you have been here for two and a half years. I have been following Europe-China relations for almost thirty years. Anyone doing that like I have, we know that this has been, it is always being and I think it will continue to be a bit of roller coaster ride. We are up one day, down the other. We agree, we disagree, we are complicit, we have discord, we cooperate and we compete. In this Covid-19 world, this landscape we are living in, issues are becoming even more complex and complicated. There are allegations and counter-allegations of politics of generosity, mask diplomacy, a battle of narratives. But even we are engaged in these geopolitical battles, we know two things. We will have to work together, all of us, China, Europe, the United States, the entire world, if we are going to find the vaccine against Covid-19. As we move out of this lockdown, as we are going to an exit strategy, we have to rebuild this devastated world economy. Trade has come to a standstill. Tourism has fallen. Millions of people across the world are really without job at this moment. We are facing a very dire global situation, we have to work together, and it has to be all hands on deck.

So Ambassador, I would like to ask you a personal question, many things to discuss, and friends across the world will be joining us on twitter with #Foedebate, so please do so. Before we start to talk about the serious things, I want to ask you a personal question, you have been kind enough to join us here in Brussels, you are physically distancing from your colleagues, you are at the mission, you are in constant contact with Beijing, but also with your colleagues here in Brussels. What is it like to be a digital diplomat, a digital Ambassador at the moment?

Ambassador Zhang Ming: Thank you Shada for organizing this video conference. Hello everyone online. Well it is really a difficult and unusual time, not only for me and for everybody. And of course as diplomats, I believe we are part of the local communities. We share the hard time with the local people together. And also like my neighbors, my wife and I, my colleagues and their families go to balcony at 8 o'clock every evening to clap and cheer for the medical workers.

Given what China has been through in the past months, we fully understand what is happening now in Europe, and also we know how important it is to observe the containment measures. Diplomats need to follow the laws and rules of the host country. As diplomats, we do not have immunity when we are affected, and we don't want to be affected. I often tell my colleagues, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Since we are here, we must contribute to the solution together with the local people.

Of course, lockdown does have a major impact on the exercises of functions. We cannot meet and talk face to face. Fortunately, technology helps. With phone calls and video-conferences like this, communication does not stop. I have been reaching out to or been reached by European friends. The discussion is centered around how to overcome the pandemic and how to push our common agenda forward together.

Shada: So Ambassador, as I was saying earlier, we are now in an exit phase and hopefully we will come out of this lockdown, many people are looking to China as we did in 2008 when there was also a financial crisis, not this big of course. Everything around the world has come to a standstill. We have to rebuild our shattered and battered economy. Many people are saying while China is also in its economic slowdown, will China be able to give the world a hand? Will it be able to encourage spending? Will it be able to keep your markets open? Will China be part of this recovery as it was in 2008?

Ambassador Zhang Ming: People often compare this crisis with the 2008 crisis. IMF even forecast a worst recession since the Great Depression. In face of a global crisis, we need openness, cooperation and multilateralism. China, together with the EU and other major economies, have a joint responsibility to help the global economy keep in shape and to reduce the impact on global trade and supply chains.

As the second largest economy, China will definitely contribute its share to a stable world economy. As announced by Chinese leadership, we will continue to pursue a proactive fiscal policy and prudent monetary policy, boost domestic demand, encourage consumer spending and raise public spending. We will continue to deepen opening-up, expand imports and outbound investment. Of course such investment only takes place after the European review or check. We are steadily resuming production while fighting the virus. These measures, I believe, will be helpful. Recently, G20 finance ministers including China agreed on a plan to relieve the poorest countries of debt payments. China is also committed to help those countries in difficulties through bilateral consultation.

Shada: So China is going to offer Africa debt relief measures as other countries have promised to do?

Ambassador Zhang Ming: Yes, we have very close cooperation with African countries just as European countries with Africa. We are in close contact with our African partners, to work together, to overcome difficulties, the pandemic and poor economic conditions.

Shada: Ambassador, another thing we want to ask you about is, people are quite interested in that, as China is coming out of its lockdown, what are the lessons we can learn as we embark on a similar exercise. I think about gradual opening of its business or non-essential services, but also a great focus on the use of technology to make sure that people stay safe even as they come out of these lockdowns. What can you share with us?

Ambassador Zhang Ming: First of all, it's encouraging to see positive signs in Europe. New infections are slowing down in some countries, including Belgium where we are. Some are beginning to adopt an exit strategy. The situation is different from one country to another, so measures have to adapt. But we are always ready to share our experience with others, but never impose it on anyone.

Actually, when China was still at a difficult stage in February, we already thought about how to restart business in some key sectors. The governments, the central government and the local governments of the provinces, because the situation is different from one province to another, rolled out policy incentives to help companies, especially SMEs. So far, nearly 90% of them have returned to business.

In the process of de-containment, it's crucial to prevent the resurgence of the virus. So we conduct strict health check through massive testing, to ensure only the healthy could go back to work. Social distancing is very important and also the facial mask, we believe it is essential. I do not know why people dislike it in Europe. But in Asia it is very essential and necessary. And a doctor told me that mask will help the healthy people with the extension of the social distance. We also keep a close eye on patients without symptoms. While the novel coronavirus is very complicated and very cunning, so it is not easy.

Given the global nature of the pandemic, there is a need for better coordination. No one is safe until everyone is safe. It is up to all of us to find solutions and minimize consequences. Anyway, China and Europe are always strong partners along the way.

Shada: Mr. Ambassador, there are initially allegations of geopolitical games becoming entangled in this pandemic. China has been accused of disinformation campaigns, of cover-up of the real number of victims of the coronavirus and also of engaging in the so-called politics of generosity. Is China really using this pandemic, this rather tragic situation, to expand its global outreach and to become more of a global power? Are you trying to win this geopolitical battle at this time?

Ambassador Zhang Ming: Well, to help people in difficulties is the tradition for Chinese, for Europeans and for all the civilizations. COVID-19 is a human tragedy, not a playground for politics. As WHO pointed out, we are fighting both the pandemic and infodemic. Disinformation is an enemy for all of us and should be addressed by all of us. From the very beginning, China has suffered a lot from disinformation. It's very bad for the fight against the pandemic.

At the most difficult moment in fighting the virus, China received kind assistance from Europe. It's widely covered by Chinese media. My Mission tweeted the press release of the Commission. Chinese people spoke highly of EU's aid, and no one said it's politics of generosity, something like that, no, no, never.

China's help to Europe, like Europe's help to China, is a sign of solidarity, not political calculation. Apart from Europe, China is also cooperating with Africa, just as I mentioned, and other vulnerable regions, and the EU is doing similar things. This is about serving public good, not a geopolitical game. We'd better forget politics now. We are in a very special time. We are in a battle, a battle between the sapiens and the virus. We cannot start another battle, a battle between a group of sapiens and another. It is wrong.

Anyway, no matter what kind of labels are put on China's efforts, we will continue to do the right thing, that is to extend a helping hand and save as many lives as possible. This is what really matters.

Shada: Right, Ambassador, thank you for that. There is a question coming in about the fact that the European Union will soon launch a global coalition in line with G20 conclusions to gather many countries, foundations and international organizations to pledge together for Covid-19 vaccines, diagnostics and treatment research. Several countries are expected to join in. Is that some kind of the initiative China would value and become part of?

Ambassador Zhang Ming: EU colleagues have told me about the pledging event. Beijing is taking a close look at the invitation. We share the view that it's important to mobilize more resources for vaccine development and for the work of WHO. Yesterday, China announced an additional 30 million US dollars to WHO, on the basis of the previous 20 million US dollars. We hope to contribute to the global fight against the virus, especially in developing countries.

Shada: Another question coming in is about the Europe- China relations, per se. There was a summit to be held in March that was postponed. There is another summit coming up in Leipzig during the German presidency, not sure whether that will be physical, face to face meeting, or perhaps by remote as well. One of the key issues that was been discussed, you referred to it a bit, was the bilateral investment treaty, as the first step to actually get something done on paper in terms of EU-China investment flows. Where are we with those negotiations? Have it come to a standstill?

Ambassador Zhang Ming:: COVID-19 is affecting the original schedule between China and the EU. Yet it does not paralyze our communication, nor undermine our shared commitment to the comprehensive strategic partnership. The two sides have been in close contact to prepare for the high-level exchanges for this year. We aim to deliver positive results and bring our relations forward. On the bright side, the pandemic shows once again, that China and EU should be partners, not rivals. The pandemic could be an opportunity for both China and EU to explore new areas of cooperation.

The BIT talks keep going on. Last Friday, one week ago, China's Vice Premier Liu He had a conversation with (Executive Vice-President) Mr. Dombrovskis. Both sides strongly committed to push forward the negotiation of the BIT. Only 2 or 3 days after, a new round of talks started last Monday and was just concluded today via video-conference. I think that is a welcome step, and progress is being made. For the China-EU summit, of course, it was postponed, but I prefer to hold it in the coming months before the Leipzig summit. Anyway, we will keep close contact with my European partners to deal with it.

During the COVID-19 crisis, there has been growing talk of de-globalization, decoupling and protectionism. The continuation of the BIT talks in itself demonstrates that China and EU are strong advocates for openness and cooperation. We could play a significant role in this regard.

Shada: Ambassador, the final question comes in from a participant in Asia talking about the Asia-Europe Meeting, ASEM meeting, that will be held in Cambodia at the end of the year. As I was saying in the past, in 2008, ASEM leaders from 45 countries, China was there. It was a meeting held in Beijing, China, other Asian countries and Europe came together, made a pledge in favor of multilateralism to keep markets open, because of the financial crisis at those days. Do you think the ASEM meeting this year could send a similarly encouraging message of openness and collaboration?

Ambassador Zhang Ming: China and EU are both important ASEM members. In fact, public health is an important area of ASEM cooperation. I think this cooperation will be strengthened. Under the current circumstances, there is a shared interest to strengthen such cooperation.

China just had an ASEAN plus Three summit on COVID-19. In February, we had a China-ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting on COVID-19. I know EU and ASEAN also had a ministerial conference on the pandemic. There is a good basis for Europe-Asia health cooperation for us to build on, as well as many other areas of cooperation.

Shada: Thanks you very much, Ambassador, for giving us such important information about not just China-Europe relations, but also what you are doing with other Asian countries and your plans with Africa. The fact that your experience in coming out of the lockdown and doing things gradually, the use of masks and technology, I think these are useful tips for us to take on. Of course, we are in the middle of a very tense geopolitical landscape. U.S.-China relations are not at its best and there are conspiracy theories, disinformation and a lot of blame game going on as well. But I really appreciate and Friends of Europe appreciate the fact that you found time to come to talk to us about how important China-Europe relations are, and also the reassurance that you have given that as 2008, China will be there, spending more, investing and keeping market open. Of course we hope that will be the case. We can take those conversations to World Trade Organizations and begin really a process of reform and change with the World Trade Organization as well as other international fora. Thank you very much, Ambassador, thank you all for joining us. Thank you for the questions and comments you sent us. And best have a good day. Stay safe and stay healthy, bye.

Ambassador Zhang Ming: Thank you Shada, stay safe and stay healthy.

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