Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s visit to Beijing showcased Spain’s increasing global influence in the run-up to national elections scheduled for December 2023
Sanchez is the first European leader to meet Xi after the latter’s recent visit to Moscow where Xi released his 12-point peace proposal.The visit also took place on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Spain and China, which were established in 1973, followed by a Strategic Partnership signed in 2005.
Spanish elites support the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment that still awaits ratification by the European Parliament, believing that it would generate a level-playing field for economic activity with China.Every Spanish PM has visited China since King Juan Carlos I’s visit to China in 1978. Spain was the first Western country to sign an extradition treaty with China in 2005, and also the first EU member state to send its foreign minister to China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. During the Dalai Lama’s five trips to Spain, no official authority received him. In 2009, former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao referred to Spain as “China’s best friend in Europe”. During its previously held presidency of the Council of the EU in 2010, Spain advocated for lifting the arms embargo against China. In 2013, relations were briefly strained when Spain attempted to indict former leaders Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin through universal jurisdiction over their violations in Tibet. Yet, according to a report by the Institut Français Des relations Internationales, Spain has traditionally been amongst the most accommodating countries in Europe regarding Taiwan, Tibet, and Chinese human rights issues. In 2018, Madrid welcomed Xi, who described relations between China and Spain as “the best in history” during his meeting with King Felipe VI. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, faulty medical supplies received through China’s “mask diplomacy” did not alter Madrid’s “no pasa nada” attitude towards Beijing. However, in the post-pandemic period, in tandem with the rest of the EU, Spain has adopted a more critical stance towards China, resulting in more conditional cooperation based on wariness resulting from China’s assertive behaviour. In 2021, Spain’s leading telecom company Telefonica replaced parts of its previously rolled-out 5G equipment with gear from Ericsson. In 2022, the Spanish government introduced a draft Royal Decree on Foreign Investments implementing the EU’s FDI screening mechanism aimed at scrutinising Chinese investments. The same year, Spain signed a joint statement with 50 countries, expressing concern regarding China’s human rights situation, particularly concerning the Uyghur Muslims. Moreover, unlike fellow Southern European countries Portugal and Italy, Spain did not join China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Besides, the emergence of the far-right party Vox on Spain’s political scene has resulted in ties with China becoming a factor in internal debates.
Spain signed a joint statement with 50 countries, expressing concern regarding China’s human rights situation, particularly concerning the Uyghur Muslims.
Brexit, and the contrast of Italy’s eurosceptic government with the refreshingly pro-EU nature of Spanish politics, are opportunities for Spain to garner greater influence at the European level.The presidency arrives amidst a more stable Spanish economy, with the country’s March inflation rate at 3.3 percent being amongst the lowest in Europe in part due to its lesser dependence on Russian gas. Previously, Spain was particularly affected during the pandemic with its GDP falling by 11 percent in 2020. Yet the Spanish economy rebounded by over 5 percent GDP growth in 2021 supported in part by the Next Generation EU recovery funds. For Sanchez, the visit to Beijing showcased Spain’s increasing global influence in the run-up to national elections scheduled for December 2023, where polls predict the opposition Popular Party as ahead of Sanchez’s Socialist Party. Furthermore, Sanchez’s close relations with both France and Germany, the traditional power brokers in the EU, will also be useful for Spain’s global ambitions. Preceding his voyage, Sanchez described China as a “top-tier global actor”, urging the world to listen to its voice. Analysts like Jose Ignacio Torreblanca from the European Council on Foreign Relations believe Spain is well-positioned to “act as a facilitator” due to its relatively “easy” ties with Beijing. But while Madrid may compartmentalise its trade ties with Beijing away from its stance on the war, European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen has stressed that Beijing’s position on the war will be a “determining factor” in EU-China ties. Whether Sanchez can finally deliver on Spain’s geopolitical ambitions remains to be seen. The stakes for Europe are high, and after years of punching below its weight, the Eurozone’s fourth-largest economy’s adoption of a more pro-active and bold approach to foreign policy can only be welcomed.
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Shairee Malhotra is Associate Fellow, Europe with ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme. Her areas of work include Indian foreign policy with a focus on EU-India relations, ...Read More +