- A new China policy is just one step in Europe’s effort to reinvent its own multilateral vision and take into account the diversity of its international partners.
- It may be difficult to distinguish incremental advancements toward a consistent China strategy from the cacophony of contradictory statements regarding Taiwan or the level of Chinese support for Russia’s offensive against Ukraine.
- Due to a lack of a clear strategy and underlying resistance from the EU members to accept a loose coordination of their own China agenda, EU diplomacy reveals its limitations.
As Europe tries to find its place within the ongoing global order transformation, China has grown to be one aspect—even if the most formidable one—of a much more complex challenge. A new China policy is just one step in Europe’s effort to reinvent its own multilateral vision and take into account the diversity of its international partners. The policies of EU member states towards China have become more rigid, while disparate national interests impede a unified, cogent approach to Beijing. To bring Europe together, a war over Taiwan might be necessary. Because China’s scientific, economic, and military prowess is fast eclipsing Europe The will of the continent to accept the truth of its worldwide fall is paralysed as a result.
To put it another way, many Europeans don’t feel threatened by China. Ukraine, which receives military aid from the distant United States, showcases the EU’s concerns. Europeans are now worried that allowing the US to have a say in European matters would decrease their military and economic power. The reasoning is that the security of many regions has been left to the United States for many years. Hence, the perception that defending Ukraine, Africa, Taiwan, South Korea, or Australia must be the concern of Europe is gathering steam. This line of reasoning is succinctly summarised in the recent statement by Emmanuel Macron where he said that the EU should reduce its dependency on the USA in order to achieve strategic autonomy.
There is a shared approach of the EU toward China in which it may be regarded as a competitor, partner or rival depending on the circumstances. It is an advantage for the EU to be creative in addressing more difficult policy issues. The positive side of this collective ambiguity is that it keeps all options open, or at least doesn’t completely remove them from the table, which is increasingly important given the transactional nature of how the world operates. This may be interpreted as Europe being uncoordinated, even hubristic. All twenty-seven member states must eventually make a firm commitment, and the EU has demonstrated that it is capable of doing so, at least on paper.
Absence of Common China Policy in the EU
The reason is straightforward: despite institutional hype, the EU is not a state; rather, it is a collection of sovereign states that have not ceded control of their foreign and security policies to the EU, particularly when it comes to dealing with an economic powerhouse like China. Therefore, the “China policy” of the EU is an intriguing and frequently at-odds collection of various national priorities and interests. On China, some Atlanticists support the U.S. hawks, while others, like France, have spent years trying ineffectively to forge a so-called “third way.”
Although this may disappoint those who worry that China is “dividing Europe,” these divergent viewpoints show how strong EU democracy is. The complexity of the EU is understood by all foreign governments, including China and the United States, who cooperate with it. Foreign governments establish special relationships with West Europe and have embassies in each of the twenty-seven EU member states. They are also aware that their relationships with the EU are frequently impacted by the highs and lows in their bilateral relationships with various EU member states.
In order to protect European core interests that are being threatened by disruptive Chinese behaviour, the EU as a body is finally coming around to developing a more realistic China policy. However, some individual member states have so far found it surprisingly difficult to even create a unified national China policy for their own nation. Germany is the prime example, where Chancellor Scholz recently put the long-awaited China strategy on hold. Therefore, European experts are not overly optimistic that Europe will be able to close the perception gaps between its China-skeptic member states like Lithuania and Czechia, where the president-elect recently went so far as to speak on the phone with Taiwan’s president, and member states like Spain, Germany, or France that generally pursue closer engagement.
Without a change in the EU’s representation, the EU won’t be able to create a common policy in the short to medium term. There isn’t a single voice communicating with China because the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission have been the main interlocutors, followed by the German chancellor and the French president. China prefers to negotiate bilaterally with nations unless the EU sends a single spokesperson.
EU’s Relationship with China
Where the EU comes from, one should never forget. Until 2019, Europeans were still treating China as a “normal country”; there was no word about “de-risking” and all government officials without exception played the China market card which—in many cases—never materialized. There is a sharp increase in trade deficits. There is no export surplus with the PRC for any member of the EU.
Recent trips to China by the leaders of Spain’s Pedro Sanchez, Germany’s Olaf Scholz, and France’s Emmanuel Macron have all demonstrated that, despite being aware of China’s growing influence on global (in)security, EU member states still see China as a business opportunity. Major issues that need to be addressed include the threats posed by Beijing’s rising nationalism, assertiveness toward its neighbours, cosy relationship with Putin, and confrontational stance with the United States, but not at the expense of strengthened bilateral ties. Thus, the EU’s multifaceted approach to China based on partnership, competition, and rivalry has gained substance as a result of intense diplomatic activity. Unless events force national capitals and Brussels to change course, as the war in Ukraine did for relations between the EU and Russia that is likely to remain the EU’s policy for the time being.
However, as much as it is about substance, Foreign Policy deals with communication. In that respect, Xi Jinping’s generous treatment during his official visit to China may have put France’s president in a compromising position. In what should have been a visit to demonstrate European unity, President Emmanuel Macron was overshadowed by Ursula von der Leyen. At this stage, the EU’s foreign policy towards China cannot change significantly and at least a more coordinated approach is needed. Europe continues to be remarkably united at the EU level. Despite the fact that almost no decision made in Brussels is without controversy, this is the case.
The Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI) has been frozen, and Europe continues to be united on these issues. But there are two issues where member states disagree. They start by pursuing their specific economic interests: France wants to cooperate in the nuclear sector, Germany wants to sell cars, and Italy wants to produce luxury goods. China can get its way without even using divide-and-conquer strategies.
Towards a Shared Policy on China
In previously unimaginable ways, the EU continues to develop shared policies on China. There is now a remarkable amount of agreement among European states with very different political and economic philosophies, whether it be on the anti-coercion tool, limiting Chinese companies’ influence in Europe’s digital infrastructure, or addressing critical raw material dependencies. It should be noted that France has excelled in a number of areas, including de-risking and Indo-Pacific military operations. Given the significant stakes, it is understandable that there are intense disagreements regarding Europe’s role in preventing a Taiwan invasion, the appropriate level of risk in one’s economic relationship with China, and the warnings and inducements needed to deter Beijing from providing Russia with lethal assistance. However, the fundamental shift in Europe’s attitude toward China will continue and is still a more significant development.
The purpose of Macron’s trip to China was not to demonstrate the unity of the EU. However, his ill-advised remarks of President Macron on Taiwan where he spoke of the EU’s non-involvement in the matter and only one sentence in a joint statement about Ukraine compelled other member states to express their opposing views on his remarks. They reaffirmed the themes of Ursula von der Leyen’s recent speech on China. It made it clear that a Taiwan Strait crisis would be very bad for Europe, that the EU opposes unilaterally changing the status quo, especially by force, and issued a warning to China not to supply Russia with weapons. This is an optimistic alternative perspective on Macron’s red carpet visit.
It may be difficult to distinguish incremental advancements toward a consistent China strategy from the cacophony of contradictory statements regarding Taiwan or the level of Chinese support for Russia’s offensive against Ukraine. However, EU nations are working together to achieve a common goal: trying to stop Beijing from assisting Russia militarily; privately warning Chinese leaders of the economic repercussions of any attack on Taiwan; opposing Chinese claims in the South China Sea; and strengthening NATO’s ties with Asian democracies. It’s simple to turn Emmanuel Macron’s careless remarks into a crisis for the EU over China. Nobody in Europe wants to be involved in a Taiwan-related crisis.
This unprecedented display of political fortitude, which was adopted in 2019 with the triple ambition of partnership, competition, and systemic rivalry, had only modest success. Due to a lack of a clear implementation strategy and underlying resistance from the union’s members to accept even a loose coordination of their own China agenda, EU diplomacy reveals its limitations as Europe tries to find its place within the ongoing global order transformation.
(The author is a post-graduate student in International Relations at Kalinga University, Raipur. The opinions expressed are the author’s own)