China-EU deal exposes Western media bias

By Jamie Leigh Wright
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Focus, January 14, 2021
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A man works at Tiexi Plant of BMW Brilliance Automotive in Shenyang, capital of northeast China's Liaoning province, Feb. 17, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

When Chinese and European leaders announced the signing of the China-EU investment agreement on the penultimate day of 2020, it sparked a wave of media attention. But, as the old saying goes, quantity does not imply quality.

In the West, few analysts bothered to unpack the deal's main features and even fewer spoke of their significance. Equally, little interest was shown for the new business opportunities it presented for both sides. And, there was no discussion of what the coming together of two economic powerhouses would mean for the wider global economy.

In fact, business and economic considerations were largely ignored. The deal's true importance, audiences were told, lay in its political ramifications. From this angle, two dominant narratives emerged. The first presented the deal as nothing more than a zero-sum bout with China emerging as the clear winner. And the second, which partly fed into the first, focused on what the deal would mean for the United States.

Narrative I: Zero-sum affair

In the eyes of much of the Western media, the deal was essentially a tale of the strong versus the weak: the conqueror and the conquered. Within this notably dishonest narrative, China was cast as the cunning victor, and the EU forced to play the victim. The reasoning for this view was simply that Beijing's political gains were judged to outweigh Europe's economic gains.

Bloomberg, Financial Times, The Diplomat, and The Economist labeled the deal a "diplomatic coup". Theresa Fallon of The Diplomat explained most important of all,"the CAI could pre-empt policy coordination on China between the EU and the United States under the new Biden administration."

Beijing was accused of using its economic might to strong-arm the EU into submission. The New York Times' Beijing bureau chief, Steven lee Myers, said the deal demonstrated the leverage Mr. Xi has because of the strength of the Chinese economy.

"China's vast economic and diplomatic influence, especially at this time of global crisis, means that countries feel they have little choice but to engage with it," Myers added.

To build-up this epic saga yet further, the EU was unceremoniously portrayed as "weak" and "naïve". "Weak" because it was said to have completed a deal that ran contrary to its own interests. And "naïve" because it was held that Beijing would almost certainly renege on its commitments.

"It is naïve to believe that China will respect the deal it has signed," said Financial Times chief foreign affairs commentator, Gideon Rachman. "It is naïve to ignore the geopolitical implications of doing a deal with China right now," he added.

Narrative II: Tensions brewing 

Another common theme in the West's coverage was what Washington would make of the deal; and, how it would impact transatlantic relations. Voice of America led this charge, stating in no uncertain terms that the deal "threatens" US-Europe relations. Beijing was accused of intentionally "driving a wedge" between the two allies.

Trump's deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, said that leaders on both sides of the aisle were "perplexed" and "stunned" over the deal. Interestingly, the outgoing security chief's undiplomatic tirade was passed over without any comment. Almost as if Washington had every right to involve itself in the EU's affairs.

Much was made over the timing of the deal too. "With Concessions and Deals, China's Leader Tries to Box Out Biden", ran one New York Times splash. Another simply asked, "Will the Sudden EU-China Deal Damage Relations with Biden?". As the latter makes clear, many analysts chose to frame the deal as an opportunistic land grab by Beijing. The fact that the deal took almost seven years and 35 rounds of talks to complete, did not appear to matter.

Closer to home, tensions were claimed to be on the rise in Europe. Smaller EU members were depicted as being overwhelmed by the two dominant powers. Germany shouldered most of the blame.

One article, titled "Germany's Drive for EU-China Deal Draws Criticism from Other EU Countries", claimed that Italy, Poland, Belgium, and Spain were angry that Germany had "pushed through" the agreement. Critics were said to have been "steamrolled" by Merkel and the "German engine" inside the European Commission.

In reality, the deal was supported by the governments of each of the 27 member states – only a slim minority of legislatures were against it. As the South China Morning Post reported on December 29, all 27 member states had already expressed support for the deal. The disproportionate media attention heaped on critics resulted in the deal being untruthfully framed as "controversial" and "contested".

Setting the record straight 

Contrary to the received wisdom of the press, Beijing is not the devil incarnate, and the EU did not sell its soul when it signed the deal. The investment agreement is far from the zero-sum affair it was described to be. In fact, it offers many benefits that extend far beyond only China and Europe.

In purely economic terms, the deal does not just guarantee a more equal playing field for European businesses operating in China. It demonstrates a clear determination on Beijing's part to open up its economy, provide broader market access, and build a more transparent business environment. Hildegard Müller, President of the German Association of the Auto Industry, noted that the deal will have a profound impact on the global economy. "It will provide new impetus for a global, rules-based framework for trade and investment," he said.

From a geopolitical standpoint, the deal has not weakened Europe: Quite the opposite. By signing the deal — in spite of considerable external pressure — Europe has shown that it will be nobody's junior partner. The world's largest trading bloc has demonstrated that it has its own unique interests and the strength to pursue them. To quote Dr. Hasim Turker; the EU-China investment agreement has cast Europe as a "Great Power".

This emergence of a new "great power" — particularly one with a record for pragmatism and cooperation — should not be viewed as something unwelcome. A distinct "third pole" could in fact bring about a more balanced and stable world order.

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