When Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Portugal in 2018 a host of cooperation agreements were signed. Image: Lusa

Portugal “lacks capacity for strategic thinking towards China”

European think-tank highlights Portugal’s Catch-22

European think tank Network on China identifies Portugal as one of the European countries that does not have a strategy towards China. 

The country’s political and business classes have developed close relations with Beijing since 1979, and continue to try to avoid diplomatic confrontations, writes Lusa news agency.

In a report just released however, the think tank – which brings together experts in Chinese politics and is based in Brussels – explains this means Portugal “lacks the capacity for strategic thinking” vis-à-vis Beijing.

Carlos Rodrigues, professor at the University of Aveiro – is the author on the Portuguese chapter within the document, and stresses that despite this lack of strategy “Portugal has managed to develop close and stable relations with China”, showing strong pragmatism over the past four decades.

This of course has been eroded recently, with Portugal’s support of the European call to blank “non NATO/ European/OECD/ UK technology from developing 5G telecoms networks”.

Rodrigues concedes: “”The growing logic of confrontation brought about by a changing international geopolitical environment has, as expected, disrupted the positive ‘continuum’ that marks the history of bilateral relations between Portugal and China”.

While nationally Portugal has maintained a friendly reception environment for Chinese investment, internationally it is aligned with the European Union/ NATO “and respects the cautious stance towards Beijing’s expansionist ambitions, while seeking to preserve the advantages of relations with China”, says Lusa.

It’s a Catch-22 in other words, that will, ultimately, require Portugal to take a position.

Says Lusa, the ETNC report “notes that Portugal, although not formally declaring it, has sought to avoid any form of confrontation with China, a situation that could change with a new geopolitical environment that has promoted greater hostility between Europe and China”.

That new geopolitical environment has hotted up considerably over the last 24-hours following reports that China “has probably provided Russia with key technology, including drones and fighter jet parts, it is using to wage war in Ukraine”.

The ETNC predates these latest revelations, suggesting China is also helping Russia circumnavigate sanctions. It refers to “signs of some resistance (by Portugal) to measures that could potentially jeopardise economic relations with China (…)  recalling that when the EU determined screening mechanisms for Chinese investment in Europe in 2019, prime minister António Costa reacted cautiously.

“It’s one thing to use screening to protect strategic sectors, it’s another thing to use screening to open the door to protectionism,” Mr Costa said at the time – a quote highlighted in the ETNC report, says Lusa.

Since those comments, Mr Costa has made other pally noises towards China, and in May President Marcelo hosted China’s vice-president Han Zheng, albeit there were no press statements coming out of the three-day visit.

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