Senior Fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, and former Regional Director for Asia-Pacific at Amnesty International
“Relations between China and Europe are key to the stability of the world order and prosperity of the Eurasian continent," Xi Jinping told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last November. If he truly meant what he said, the current state of EU-China relations will make for a very difficult 2024, as they remain stuck in an impasse.
Unfortunately for Europe, the three key factors that will shape the direction and content of the relationship this year are largely out of its hands.
The first factor is Xi Jinping himself. It is abundantly clear to anyone engaging in negotiations with Chinese counterparts that, irrespective of any internal debates within the party-state, there is only one decision-maker in terms of foreign policy, and it is Xi himself. Will China’s current economic headwinds lead Xi to conclude that the country’s economic resilience and geopolitical rivalry with the US is better served via a constructive relationship with the EU? If not, there is little hope that any issues currently on the table, from trade to security, can be resolved at the working level only.
The second factor is Putin’s determination to continue waging war in Ukraine. By far the biggest obstacle to putting EU-China relations back on the rails is Beijing’s refusal to acknowledge, even less address, the existential importance of this war to Europe. As von der Leyen (echoed by other top EU officials) has made clear, “…the way China positions itself on Russia's war will define our mutual relationship for the years to come.” China vehemently opposes the EU’s “de-risking” strategy. But it fails to see that the more it aligns itself with Moscow, the bigger a risk it appears to European leaders, and, in turn, the further the EU will be willing to push de-risking. Here, too, Xi’s personal preferences, with their manifest amity for Vladimir Putin, appear to be trumping all other considerations.
The third factor is how much Washington remains engaged in European affairs. US commitment to supporting Ukraine is already wavering, ten months before an election that could bring back a president who pledged as a candidate to “…have this war settled in one day.” Any worsening of the security situation on Europe’s Eastern flank would cause a major upset in EU priorities, and most likely mark the end of a unified European approach to China. Even without such a dramatic turn of events, the cold truth is that Europe has only found the courage to stand up to Beijing in the shadow of Washington’s aggressive – and, on its own terms, largely successful – strategy of containing China. Should the US take a more isolationist or protectionist turn, Europe would find itself isolated and scrabbling on both the security and economic fronts.
2024 already promises to be a particularly challenging year for the EU. While it has little control over the overriding factors that will affect the shape of its relationship with China, the EU can and should concentrate on what ultimately matters most: ensuring that its economy remains strong enough not be outcompeted.