China debates on the EU's geopolitical standing + European leaders' visits to Beijing
In this issue of the MERICS Europe China 360°, we cover the following topics:
- China Debates: EU’s geopolitical standing and EU-China relations in the second year of Russia’s war against Ukraine
Europe may go to Beijing, but the relationship struggles to improve
By Grzegorz Stec
As the Russian war in Ukraine moves into its second year, how do Chinese think-tank experts and intellectuals evaluate the geopolitical standing of the EU and the prospects for EU-China relations? Last August, many of them argued that the EU’s position regarding the war was characterized by a contradiction between deepening dependence on the US and an increasing desire for strategic autonomy in European capitals. That contradiction could, they argued, give China some strategic space to navigate its increasingly challenging relationship with the EU.
Much has happened since then. Beijing launched a charm offensive on Europe, the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act caused frictions this side of the Atlantic, and Sino-American tensions spiked once again, all the while Russia’s war in Ukraine drags on. This has prompted Beijing to release a position paper, branded as a peace plan, in an attempt to limit the political costs of its support for Moscow.
Evaluating the developments of the past year, a Fudan University study suggests that Russia’s war facilitated some of the EU’s Russia policy to spill over into its China policy. Despite this negative implication, the report maintains that some “pragmatism and rationality” continues to be a feature of the EU’s China policy.
Compared to last year, EU-China relations may have stabilized over a shared desire for economic stability. Yet, they still lack a strong base that could prevent strategic divergence over the long-term. And even though Chinese experts’ discussions are dominated by hopes of transatlantic frictions incentivizing the EU to re-engage with China, the improbable nature of such hopes is starting to feature more explicitly in their writing.
Chinese experts largely agree that the EU has been significantly weakened in the aftermath of the “Ukraine conflict,” diminishing its position as a geopolitical actor. That is regarded as an unwelcome development for China, as it limits the number of geopolitical poles and strengthens the United States by increasing Washington’s influence in European capitals.
Yet, several Chinese experts point to tensions between the EU and the US. For example, Xin Hua refers to an “economic shadow war” between transatlantic partners, while Zhang Jian maintains that the US is re-industrializing at the expense of a de-industrializing Europe. The logic then goes that the EU has an interest in rebalancing its challenging relations with the US, through engagement with China, to increase its “strategic room to maneuver.”
An example of an arena where several Chinese experts see those dynamics play out is NATO, the increasing Asia portfolio of which continues to be one of the key concerns for China in relation to Europe. The experts point to the fact that, on more than one occasion, European NATO allies expressed reluctance to insert China-related points into the organization’s guiding document, the Strategic Concept, and into the joint EU-NATO declaration – the publication of which was supposedly delayed over disagreements on the inclusion of China-related points.
Many Chinese experts see this combination of EU reluctance paired with transatlantic economic tensions as a basis for improving EU-China relations. Glossing over fundamental differences between the EU and China, they fail to highlight any concrete goals the EU and China should strive to achieve. The focus is put on a presumed set of shared reservations towards Washington’s agenda, but fails to appreciate the values-related proximity between transatlantic partners and the fact that many in Europe do not see distancing from the US as an advisable course of action within the current geopolitical context.