From the "workshop of the world" to "systemic rival"?

30 - 31 March | Interdisciplinary conference: International Perspectives on a Global China

A look back at the conference

On the first day of our conference "From the 'workshop of the world' to 'systemic rival'", the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, gave a landmark speech on China-EU relations. She described the relationship as complex and significant at the same time. Her speech was eagerly awaited and found its way into the various lively discussions.

In our three panels, organised with the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States (KICUS) and the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA), the participants gained insights into perspectives from different parts of the world:

The first panel on German China narratives focused on the right way to deal with political developments within China and the way German interests can be integrated into a broader, European framework. Uncertainty and lack of understanding seem to dominate not only economically. The speakers demanded, to base future decisions on sober analysis of reality and to act accordingly – rather than on Germany's own hopes and wishes.

While Europe struggles with the right approach, a clear bipartisan "anti-China" sentiment dominates in the USA. In the second panel on US-China narratives, it became clear that China is not seen as their partner, but as a rival on all levels, whether technological, economic, political or cultural. The question is no longer whether there will be a new "Cold War" – we are rather in the middle of it. However, the US must offer more than a "democracy vs. autocracy"-narrative on the global level. Especially with regard to the Global South that will not be blinded by this narrative. Furthermore, the US urgently needs a positive narrative of the future.

The importance of history and its politics became clear at the third panel about China's neighbouring states and their China narratives. In particular, Indo-Chinese history plays an integral role in current misunderstandings. The differentiated perception of China among the young generation in Japan was surprising. Given the complicated history marked by war and aggression, this is not a matter of course.

The first panel on the second day of our conference was organised in cooperation with the Africa Policy Research Institute. It showed that Europe is important, but not the centre of the world. Listening to the varying narratives on China in African societies it became clear that a binary, dualistic worldview is unproductive. A multipolar world has already emerged and it is time to acknowledge it. The influence of a whole set of Chinese narratives on the African continent is very successful. It revolves mainly around the buzzword ‘development’ on the one hand and pushing back Western narratives on the other. There has been clear criticism of the West in the sense that there is a lot of talk about but little action taken. In contrast to China, neither the US nor Europe have convincing positive counter-offers for the future.

The panel was contrasted by the following debate, which dealt with the different China narratives within the EU, organised in cooperation with the European Council on Foreign Relations. The different perspectives between Central Europe and Western Europe were discussed in an animated manner. It was strongly emphasised that the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine is at the centre of the China narratives in Central Europe and that the rapprochement between the two states is viewed very critically.

All participants became aware that the world is changing and there are much more questions than answers – perceiving and discussing other perspectives can help to answer them.

During the conference, journalist Felix Lee (China.Table) conducted short interviews with the participating experts. In each video, he asked them three questions on, among other things, Germany’s first ever China strategy, the US pushing for “decoupling”, the territorial disputes in the East China Sea, the impact of the New Silk Road in Africa, and the opposing China narratives in Western and Eastern Europe. 

To watch the short versions of the interviews, click here. For the detailed versions, click here.

About the Conference

“Global economic powerhouse”, “equal partner”, “global investor”, “aggressor”, “strategic rival” or “force for peace” – international perspectives on a global China are diverse and even contrasting. In 2023, ten years after China launched its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, the Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt Foundation (BKHS) organises the conference “From the ‘workshop of the world’ to ‘systemic rival’? International Perspectives on a Global China” in Hamburg. Together with its cooperation partners, the BKHS invites renowned China experts from politics, academia, business and media to debate and analyse perspectives and narratives on China in different regions of the world in an international and interdisciplinary conference.

In 2019, the EU agreed on a common position on the People's Republic of China (PRC). It is considered as a partner, a competitor and “systemic rival”. Russia's war in Ukraine, however, has created new realities and is testing relations with the PRC in many regions of the world. “Global economic powerhouse”, “equal partner”, “global investor”, “aggressor”, “strategic rival” or “force for peace” – these are just some of the competing buzzwords currently dominating discussions about China or propagated by the country itself. International perspectives on China vary or even contradict each other. Do these different narratives facilitate international cooperation or do their discrepancies hinder international partnerships? Which actors shape the various narratives and what are their drivers?

To discuss these and other questions, this conference brings together some of the most distinguished international China experts from science, politics, economics and media. In five panels, the conference focuses on the differences and similarities of the regional narratives on China in Germany, the United States, Asia, Africa and the European Union: 

  • For decades (West-)Germany benefited from China’s rapid economic growth and participated willingly in knowledge-exchange. Now the tide seems to have been turned; what are the political and economic motivations or conditions for the changing China narratives in Germany? What are the chances for a new German policy on China now that Germany is implementing its first ever China Strategy?
  • Fifty years ago, only Nixon could go to China and what followed was the integration of the People’s Republic of China into the world economy and global institutions. How have China narratives in the United States changed between rapprochement and “decoupling”? What impact does economic policy (“China shock”) but also the strengthening China-Russian alliance have?
  • An increasing economic and military influence is experienced by PRC’s neighbours, while disputes in territorial questions as in the East China Sea are coming to a head. How does China’s approach to regional security in Asia shape China narratives in countries such as Japan, South Korea, Indonesia or India?
  • China’s growing influence in Africa seems to be a threat to Europe and the West, it is often framed as a threat to the whole continent. But what are Africa’s China narratives? How does Chinese foreign policy, such as the “New Silk Road” project, impact the history and current situation in African states? How are China’s external development commitments, including within the United Nations, perceived?
  • The European Union needs to find its position and a new strategy in the intensifying global power competition. What are the implications for EU-members in Eastern and Western Europe? Are there differences and contrasts? Which China narratives dominate the discourses in EU institutions and EU member states? And how does Germany position itself?

The conference is accompanied by a public event open to all interested parties on Hamburg, China and the Politics of Globalisation. Please find more on this event here

We are proud to cooperate with some of the most renowned institutions in the field: the Africa Policy Research Institute (APRI), the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA), Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States (KICUS) and the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).

The conference takes an in-depth look at the various China narratives and their political implications. It is therefore held under Chatham House Rule. Through various formats, the BKHS is keen to make the results of the conference available to an interested public in the course of the year.

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