Portugal is in a good position to use its presidency to define a pragmatic EU approach towards China, because it "recognizes the complexity of the relationship", "but considers it crucial", defend experts.
The position appears in a report, to which Lusa had access, of the independent European Council for External Relations (ECFR) think tank, which analyzes how the Portuguese presidency can boost greater cooperation in the EU to consolidate global leadership, taking taking into account the opinions of Europeans.
Evoking the so-called “mask diplomacy”, which China promoted in the face of the pandemic caused by the new coronavirus and which “translated into an intentional help for health equipment, medical personnel and support for research”, the report points out that it corresponded to one more Beijing's way of “exploring the differences between EU member states”.
That aid had an influence on citizens' opinions about China, with studies indicating that in countries like Italy or Bulgaria, which received “very significant amounts of Chinese aid”, only about a third of their citizens say that their perception of China worsened during the crisis, while in Denmark or France, which received “much less” aid, 62% of citizens expressed a more negative opinion.
In the case of Portugal, the country “received comparatively high levels of medical support from Beijing”, being “in the middle of the table” of 27, “but 46% of Portuguese say that their perception of China worsened during the crisis”, “the which seems to suggest that the Portuguese are well aware that China's donations are not entirely altruistic ”.
“From the point of view of the Portuguese government, not having a relationship with this interlocutor - which is, after all, a country with 1,4 billion citizens, the second largest economy in the world and with an increasing capacity to project global power - would be equivalent to ignore one of the main elements of today's strategic reality ”, reads the document.
Portugal has "one of the oldest links of any European country with China" and, "with the exception of the Estado Novo de Salazar, relations between the two countries have always been stable and fruitful".
However, the current relationship “is deeply asymmetric”: “Portugal's exports to China are worth less than one billion euros a year, while the value of China's imports exceeds 2,2 billion euros”.
On the other hand, “Chinese investment in Portugal intensified after the 2008 financial crisis” and today it translates into “significant interests” in the energy, banking, insurance, tourism, port and health sectors.
In this context, the Portuguese government's approach to the relationship with China, and after “some critics” called him “China's special friend in the EU”, has been to warn “against protectionist tendencies in Europe” and to stress that “until now, China has shown absolute respect for the Portuguese and EU legal frameworks”.
"From the perspective of Lisbon, the EU must pragmatically reinforce its strategic dialogue with China, addressing the asymmetry in its relations, while recognizing that Beijing is an indispensable partner in a world of global interdependence and multiple challenges."
In the EU, the study maintains, “it is only by increasing cooperation in areas of mutual interest that member states can create a more balanced relationship […] and prevent Beijing from taking advantage of the covid-19 crisis to exploit the differences between them” .
The report argues that "if, until the end of last year, Portugal's relations with China were essentially motivated by short and medium-term economic concerns, that seems to be changing", probably due to "pressure from the USA", the “A change in Portuguese public opinion” and “growing concerns about China's long-term true intentions”.
The report “Presidency of crisis: How the Portuguese leadership can guide the EU in the post-covid era”, financed by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and carried out by Susi Dennison and Lívia Franco, will be released on 27 October.
The European Council on External Relations (ECFR) is an independent think tank, with researchers in all 27 EU Member States.
Portugal will hold the presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of 2021.