Sweden is really just a supporting actor on the big geopolitical stage. The positions of the Scandinavian state are rarely discussed. But Sweden, like Germany, has trade policy interests. The relationship with the People’s Republic of China has also become increasingly complex – for example, with the arrest of Swedish citizen and bookseller Gui Minhai in Thailand six years ago. “Local politicians like to talk about opportunities and challenges with regard to China relations,” says Björn Jerdén. He is the director of the Swedish National China Centre and an expert on China.
The Swedish government is not talking about containing China or decoupling, but is focusing on opportunities for economic cooperation, Jerdén says. Sweden’s 2019 China strategy defined diverse areas of responsibility for the government, including security, trade, climate, innovation, education, and China as a player in development assistance. There is actually never any talk of putting China in its place. “One thing has changed in Sweden, though: Things that used to be considered only as opportunities are now also seen as challenges,” Jerdén explains. One example is Chinese investment in Sweden.
Every EU country needs China expertise
A balanced sight of the pros and cons requires appropriate expertise, which Jerdén is able to provide with his Centre. It only began operations in January, is funded by the Swedish government, and is intended to provide ministries and authorities with information. “For that, you need experts who know a lot about China and maybe speak Chinese, but who also have expertise in a particular field,” he says.
In his opinion, it is necessary for every EU country to gather as much knowledge about China as possible. Only in this way a common European strategy could be developed. “But there is no single solution for generating knowledge. The situation is different in each country, in terms of government and the interaction between government and universities, think tanks and foundations,” Jerdén says.
Steep rise as China expert
Jerdén himself is the product of Swedish university education. After a bachelor’s and master’s degree at the Department of Global Political Studies at Malmö University, he earned his doctorate in Stockholm. During his doctoral studies, he spent time in Taiwan as a guest scientist in 2012 and 2013. He later participated in the China and the World Program at Harvard and Princeton Universities. Prior to his appointment as Director of the Swedish National China Centre, he worked at the renowned Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm.
During this time, Jerdén saw interest in China policy in Sweden grow rapidly. This was due to general global political developments as well as incidents such as the detention of Swedish citizen and publicist Gui Minhai in 2015. “This led to a period of tension in relations. From 2018 on, the Chinese Foreign Ministry increasingly participated in political discourse in Sweden through its embassy in Stockholm,” Jerdén explains.
This moved Sweden’s China policy up the agenda, even outside trade-related issues. “These problems led to an understanding of the need to gain more knowledge about China in the long term in order to manage the relationship in a good way. The China Center is a concrete result of these efforts.” Constantin Eckner