Jorge Toledo Albiñana: «Dialogue and constructive relations are needed between the EU and China»

Exclusive interview with the Ambassador of the European Union to the People's Republic of China, HE Jorge Toledo Albiñana

Prepare to embark on an enlightening journey through the corridors of diplomacy with the gripping interview with Ambassador Jorge Toledo Albiñana, a key figure in global relations. As part of our column dedicated to influential personalities from the Italian and European economic and institutional world, it is with enthusiasm that we present to you the dialogue we have had with the esteemed European ambassador to China since September 2022.

Born in Ludwigshafen Am Rhein, Germany, and graduated in law, Ambassador Toledo Albiñana embarked on his diplomatic career in 1989, exploring different regions of the world and providing unique perspectives on the international business landscape. From India to Japan, passing through Senegal, his professional path culminated in his current position as European Ambassador to China.

Join us as we explore the profound knowledge and experience of this distinguished diplomat, bringing to light the evolving dynamics of EU-China relations, economic collaboration and the complex dance of geopolitics.

What was the path that led you to take on the role of EU ambassador to China?

«After obtaining a law degree and entering the Diplomatic School in Spain, I entered the Spanish Foreign Service in 1989. Since then, with the exception of three years in Senegal, where I was Ambassador of Spain from 2008 to 2011, my career has been dedicated mainly to European Union Affairs and Asia. Throughout my career I have held various positions in the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister's office. From 2016 to 2018 I was the Spanish Secretary of State for the EU and European Affairs. In Asia, I was posted to the Spanish embassies in India and Japan. In the period between 2018 and 2022, I was again assigned to Japan, this time taking on the role of ambassador of Spain. Subsequently, in September 2022, I arrived in China to serve as ambassador of the European Union.”

There have been notable changes in the dynamics of EU-China relations in recent years. Having arrived in China about a year ago, how would you assess the current state of diplomatic relations between the European Union and China?

«After more than three years of very limited contact due to pandemic restrictions, we have just emerged from an intense period of in-person exchanges and dialogues between the EU and China, culminating in the EU-China Summit last December. The EU has outlined its relations with China as threefold: partnership, competition and systemic rivalry. But dialogue is the common tool to address these three aspects. That's why it was so important to resume these exchanges. Despite our different political and economic systems, the European Union continues to believe that constructive and stable relations with China can be similarly pursued, if anchored in respect for the rules-based international order, balanced engagement, transparency and reciprocity. While we had the opportunity to have open discussions, how we follow up on these exchanges will be essential, as we need to see concrete results and progress, especially regarding the market access barriers our companies face in China.”

Could you identify the key factors that have played a significant role in shaping these evolving dynamics?

«Of course many factors are important in such a large and complex relationship as that between the EU and China. However, if you ask me to highlight one factor that has shaped the dynamics recently, it would be Russia's illegal war of aggression in Ukraine. For us Europeans the question is existential. Since arriving as the European Union's ambassador to China in September 2022, one of my most important tasks has been to explain the profound impact that Russia's illegal and large-scale invasion of Ukraine has had on the European Union and globally. But it also had an impact on EU-China relations, because China's image and reputation in Europe suffered due to the position it took in this war of aggression. Europeans cannot understand why an important permanent member of the UN Security Council such as China, which proclaims the fundamental importance of respecting territorial integrity, does not clearly condemn this blatant violation of the most basic principles of the UN Charter and does not use its influence with Russia to pressure it to stop aggression and respect the territorial integrity of a sovereign country. I must also mention trade and economic relations, an area in which we are faced with an extreme imbalance and in which we will continue to try to ensure a level playing field, to ensure that trade and economic relations are balanced, reciprocal and mutually beneficial.”

The EU-China summit plays a crucial role in shaping bilateral relations. What key outcomes or agreements emerged from the summit and how do they reflect the priorities and challenges of EU-China relations?

«First and foremost, the first in-person Summit in four years was held on December 7, 2023. I would also like to underline the tone of the discussions, which were frank but I believe took place in a positive, forward-looking and constructive atmosphere. Both sides recognized the importance of our relationships and the need to manage our differences. The summit allowed us to cover the full range of our relations, including areas of disagreement such as Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine, the situation in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, and human rights issues . We also held important discussions on the growing imbalances in our trade and investment relations, as well as on climate change and the green transition, where the EU-China partnership is crucial for the future of our planet.”

Looking to the future, what areas of cooperation do you see as particularly promising for the European Union and China? Are there specific sectors or initiatives where greater collaboration could bring mutual benefits?

“We must remain committed to addressing global challenges, encourage China to take more ambitious action to address climate change, and continue our collaborative partnership in protecting biodiversity, while engaging more intensively in health and pandemic preparedness, security food, disaster reduction, debt relief and humanitarian assistance.”

In 2024, what can we expect from EU-China relations and how can businesses and politicians prepare for the developments that await us in the coming year?

«I sincerely hope that China will seriously address the EU's concerns in 2024. We urgently need concrete progress in addressing imbalances in our economic and trade relations and the long list of market access barriers that our companies increasingly face often in China. This is urgent and necessary to prevent this extreme imbalance from becoming politically toxic. As President Von der Leyen said at the Summit, we in the EU do not want to follow the path that others have taken to protect their market from unfair competition and an unlevel playing field, but for this we must be able to show progress and concrete results towards a more just and balanced relationship.”

What advice would you like to share with managers or investors who are considering investing in China?

«Despite the obvious attractiveness of a huge market and the unprecedented development of the Chinese economy over the past forty years, in recent years we have seen a steady decrease in foreign direct investment in China, including from EU companies. This is especially true for SMEs. One obvious reason is more than three years of very severe pandemic restrictions, but there are other worrying trends that appear to have reduced China's attractiveness and which must be addressed by the Chinese government if China is to regain the prominence it has had as a destination for foreign investments. I am referring to a thinly disguised policy of self-sufficiency or a marked preference to allow and promote investment in sectors where Chinese authorities believe they still need foreign technology. However, there is also a worrying, more recent trend that is significantly influencing the propensity for foreign investment in China: the growing priority given to national security, highlighted, among other things, by recent legislation regarding counter-espionage or cross-border data transfer . The legal uncertainty caused by a very broad and unclear definition of the terms of the legislation and the new and unclear obstacles to the transfer of data from China, which put business models at risk, are clearly making foreign investors rethink their investment options. investment. All of these elements must be taken into consideration before making an important investment decision. I hope the Chinese government will address the negative effects on foreign investment of some of these policies.”

The interview kindly granted by Ambassador Jorge Toledo Albiñana serves as a valuable compass for entrepreneurs and institutional figures navigating the intricate landscape of EU-China relations. In a world where diplomatic complexities and global partnerships play a critical role, the insights gathered during this conversation offer a strategic understanding of the challenges and opportunities that define the contemporary dynamics between the European Union and China.

By: Attorney Carlo Diego D'Andrea, Vice President of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China