By Abigaël Vasselier
Only few weeks into 2024, Europe has not seen a single day without a headline related to China, from brandy to spies, from anti-dumping investigations to leaders’ meetings. The European public and decision-makers face a China-intensive year in 2024 – although they should not expect a dramatic change in a complicated relationship. Potentially turbulent geopolitics involving Russia, Taiwan and the USA look set to play a greater role than China’s domestic problems or Europe’s various long-standing issues with Beijing.
China needs Europe to maintain the status quo
The Chinese leadership’s priority is currently not foreign policy but the country’s socio-economic issues that are getting more pressing by the day. As Beijing sees no role for Europe in tackling its domestic problems, the region remains very low on China’s political agenda. But this is premised on Europe upholding its role as a proponent of geopolitical stability through engagement and as a more reliable and open economic partner than the US.
China wants Europe to remain a hedge against and potential counterweight to Washington (especially with the US presidential election in November creating huge uncertainty), keep the European single market open for Chinese goods and ensure European companies remain (and keep investing) in China. While the first aim chimes with European ambitions for “strategic autonomy”, Beijing’s defense of the status quo in the other two areas looks unlikely without some moves to level the economic playing field.
What to watch: Beijing could make a surprise offer to Europe in the economic sphere. Such a gift could be highly selective, but high-profile enough for Europe not to decline it.
Geopolitics could be the main factor affecting bilateral relations
Russia is the biggest threat to European security, stability, prosperity, and the future of our democracies. In that sense, China’s support of Russia’s war against Ukraine will be the most important factor for Europe-China relations. Beijing’s pro-Russian “neutrality” has forged the most unified stance towards China Europe has ever seen. There is a sense that there will be no return to business as usual. Beijing has understood that this will change the nature of its relations with Europe and has taken great care to keep its support of Russia’s war effort in a calibrated manner, avoiding crossing established red lines.
What to watch: In supporting Russia, China remains in constant danger of crossing a red line that would force Europe to react and in turn, rethink the trajectory of bilateral relations with Beijing.
The United States and the ongoing geopolitical and technological competition will remain a defining factor in Europe-China relations. Despite mutual efforts to reengage, the US presidential race will prominently feature unflattering images of China. With the recent US visit of top diplomat (and possibly next foreign minister) Liu Jianchao, Beijing has signaled that managing tensions to avoid derailing bilateral relation is a priority for China this year.
What to watch: While caution and reengagement are Beijing’s watchwords at the start of 2024, moments of irrationality on both sides could trigger another crisis. Beijing’s positioning towards each of the two presidential candidates will be crucial.
The recent presidential election in Taiwan gave the independence-leaning Democratic People’s Party a third consecutive ruling mandate, albeit without a majority in the legislature. This blemish is unlikely to stop China once again ratcheting up tensions in the Taiwan Strait, probably even before William Lai takes over from Tsai-Ing Wen in May.
What to watch: Any rise in tensions in the Taiwan Strait would become an issue in the US presidential election, likely raising geopolitical strains another notch including for Europe.
Selected events relevant to EU-China relations in 2024:
- Spring: Xi Jinping possible to visit France
- Spring/summer: German Chancellor Scholtz to visit China
- June 6-9: European Parliament election
- June 13-15: G7 summit in Rome
- July: NATO summit in Washington
- November 5: US presidential election
- November 11-24: COP29 in Azerbaijan
- November 18-19: G20 summit in Brazil
China is firmly in Europe’s mind in 2024
Brussels will focus on finalizing work in progress and setting the China agenda for the new European Commission, which will start work in the second half of the year. The China-related debate is likely to focus on de-risking and the economic security strategy, including with a proposal released on January 24 that requires a final push by member states and European companies. While this Commission has successfully created a European defensive toolbox that can be used to protect and promote European interests vis-a-vis China, the rest of this mandate will be about using it (as we saw with the launch of the investigation over Chinese subsidies on electric vehicles). China has reacted with measured tit-for-tat, for instance with an investigation into French brandy, although Beijing may yet react to European anti-dumping investigations or the use of other instruments more forcefully. Expectations about engagement are limited: China will not make concessions to an outgoing Commission, nor will the EU become transactional.
At the same time, each EU member state will be seeking to reengage China, putting the spotlight on Europe’s ability to coordinate messaging and find joint positions. The same question will apply to European partners: The Italian 2024 presidency of the G7 promises to feature China heavily, if Rome agrees to continue building on Japanese efforts and the past commitments of the bloc to better coordinate on China and promote a solid economic security agenda.
What to watch: It will be crucial for EU member states to maintain unity of action and coherence in their respective approaches to China. How they fare will be influenced by how actively China inserts itself in debates around the European Parliament elections and how Beijing reacts to the use of more defensive instruments by the EU.