Premier Li’s Focus on Building Eurasia

ASEMChina’s Premier Li Keqiang landed in Beijing on Oct.18th, concluding his nine-day trip to Europe after visiting Germany, Russia, Italy, and attending the tenth annual Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). It was Li’s second European trip this year and fourth since he officially became Premier, signaling China’s increasing interest in building partnerships with European countries. Amid global concerns of economic slowdown, Li’s visit “injected new vitality into China-Europe relations”, according to People’s Daily, China’s state-run media outlet. During his first stop, Germany, Li co-chaired the third round of China-German Governmental Consultations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the two heads of state agreed to lift the two countries’ strategic partnership to a higher level. Both leaders vowed to maintain global competitiveness through the promotion of innovation, joint research initiatives, and mutual understanding of each country’s unique system. “With similar focus on real economy and manufacturing, China could benefit a lot by learning from Germany”, said Yang Cheng, Vice Director of Russian Studies at East China Normal University. Intensive talks accompanied the statements, with the two countries striking over $18 billion in deals to strengthen trade investment and technological cooperation.

Episodes from this trip also demonstrated closer relationships between the Chancellor and the Premier on a personal level. Earlier in March, when Chairman Xi and his wife visited the country, Merkel hosted the couple at her residence with a well-crafted, but traditional German meal. During Li’s visit, Chancellor Merkel also played host, only this time with the addition of German roast duck, a nod to the popular Chinese dish, Peking Roast Duck. After the Consultations, the Chancellor also heeded Li’s request to visit a local supermarket. Merkel chose to take Li to a market she had been frequenting for over twenty years, purchasing multiple gifts out of her own pocket for Li and his wife. In an interview with Chinese media, Germany’s Ambassador to China Mr. Michael Clauss claimed that Li’s successful trip represented a new historical height of Sino-German relations.

After Germany, the Premier continued on to visit Moscow where he emphasized the importance of enhancing mutual cooperation in the current volatile global environment. Transportation and energy stood at the heart of the talks. Aiming to build a Eurasian economic network, Li stated that China was ready to advance a rail corridor that would connect Beijing with Moscow, beginning with the current high-speed railway project to join Moscow and Kazan, the Russian capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. Affirmation of this ambitious pilot project signals China’s desire to reconstruct a modern Silk Road that would extend across the largest continent in the world. Seeking new supply of energy for domestic consumption, the Premier also stated that China will increase its cooperation with Russia in nuclear energy in an integrated manner that covers upstream, midstream and downstream industries. While talking with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Li also pointed out that China would like to further improve its relationship with Russia in industries including mining, chemicals, agriculture, and infrastructure construction. The leaders signed 40 agreements, including a $24.4 billion currency swap to facilitate Sino-Russian trade. Li’s visit to Moscow directly after spending time in Berlin signals the Premier’s willingness to work with both sides amid EU-Russian tensions over Ukraine. “Li’s visit to Russia directly after a Western European country like Germany is unprecedented.” Yang commented, “It reflects the strategic considerations in China’s foreign policy to integrate the Eurasian continent”.

In Rome, the Premier met with a Chinese-Italian committee of entrepreneurs to discuss future bilateral relations within the business community regarding, investment, technology and financial cooperation. Making reference to Marco Polo, the Italian traveler who visited China from Italy eight centuries ago, Li encouraged the local Italian business owners to join forces with China in the competitive global environment today. As the highlight of the trip, Chinese and Italian companies signed deals worth more than $10 billion.

To conclude his trip, the Chinese Premiere spoke at ASEM and addressed his vision for a more connected Eurasian community and eventually a common market. In his speech, Li traced the shared heritage between Asia and Europe back to the First and Second World Wars and urged nations to preserve the peace through mutual respect and cooperation in the fields of international security, trade and cultural exchange. “This is Li’s first time to attend ASEM since becoming Premiere.” Commented Cui Hongjian, director of the Department for European Studies of the China Institute of International Studies, “The summit has offered a good opportunity to bring the Silk Road Economic Zone and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road conceptions into Asia-Europe cooperation”.

The Eurasian region currently account for 55% of world’s total GDP and 60% of gross global trade volume. However, trade between EU and non-European countries only makes up 44% of Europe’s total imports and 30% of total exports, leaving space for potential trade increase with Asian countries. “There is still room for further integration within the region,” said Cui, “and that’s why Premier Li’s address at ASEM is meaningful. It pointed out the common interest between Europe and Asia and directions for future cooperation.”