In this issue of the MERICS Europe China 360° we cover the following topics:
• What does enhanced China-Russia coordination mean for the EU?
• China sponsored human rights research in Europe
• A shiny new Chips Act for the EU
• EU-Africa Summit: Global Gateway with China in the background
You can read a free excerpt of our latest MERICS Europe China 360° below.
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The China-Russia joint statement opens a new chapter in Beijing-Moscow cooperation, creating a relationship that the two partners describe as “superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era” with “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation”. It was accompanied by a range of other agreements such as a 30-year gas deal or cooperation between satellite navigation systems GLONASS and Beidou.
Beijing has for the first time explicitly expressed support for Moscow’s stance about its security in Eastern Europe and opposition to further NATO enlargement in the region. The two countries have also jointly opposed the security pact between Australia, the UK and the United States (AUKUS) and the “formation of closed bloc structures and opposing camps” in the Indo-Pacific.
The joint statement includes a mutual promotion of global tech standards, increasing military coordination and expanding economic crossovers between the Belt and Road Initiative and Eurasian Economic Union. The pair also emphasized their ideological kinship through commitment to “democratization of international relations” and opposition to “color revolutions”, regarded as foreign interference by liberal democracies.
A strategic coordination rather than a formal alliance is rooted in a shared assessment of the two countries’ aligned strategic interests. Such shared assessments might originate from a similar political psychology of their elites, focused on hard power and regime stability, while aligned interests include supporting authoritarian political models or striving for multipolarity. Either way, both have a vital interest in redefining the Western-led rules-based international order. While the edge of this coordination is aimed primarily at the United States, the EU is also seen as a challenge given its commitment to democratic values and a market-driven approach.
Notably, the statement included more Chinese foreign policy concepts such as the “community of common destiny for mankind” or Beijing’s rhetoric on “democratization” than previous similar statements, revealing how the power balance in Sino-Russian relations continuously shifts in Beijing’s favor.
While Beijing’s economic and technological power paired with global influence is increasing, Moscow is struggling to forestall the retrenchment of its position. Consequently, there are a range of issues: a level of mutual mistrust as Moscow strives to retain achievable levels of autonomy — limiting Chinese investments in the country, occasional divergences — in the Arctic and prospectively in Central Asia, or limitations to political commitment — lack of recognition of the annexation of Crimea by China, and Russia’s reluctance to support China’s South China Sea claims.
However, these tensions do not meritshould not prompt European attempts to derail the Sino-Russian relationship. For Moscow, increasing dependence on China is undesirable but also unavoidable given the lack of better strategic alternatives. Any concessions offered by the European side in the near future would therefore only be leveraged tactically without changing Moscow’s overall strategic calculations.
- The gradual loss of its strategic autonomy vis-à-vis Beijing could incentivize Moscow to diversify away from China in the long-term. However, current European initiatives to re-engage Russia are unlikely to bear fruit given the alignment of core interests between Russia and China.
- The EU should be aware of the impact of Sino-Russian coordination on the two states’ activities in Eastern Europe and in the Indo-Pacific (e.g., feeling secure on its eastern border, Russia moved many of its stationed troops to the Ukrainian border).
- The new gas contract and prospects for Beijing’s economic support decreases Russia’s fear of potential EU’s sanctions. China’s recent Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law is also an indication of determination to push back on such actions by the West.
- Systemic rivalry remains high on Moscow and Beijing’s agenda, with the first section of the joint statement devoted to “democracy”. The values-related tensions between Brussels and the two authoritarian capitals are likely to further escalate.;
- Beijing and Moscow may coordinate their pushback against the EU’s defensive mechanisms (e.g., opposition to the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism is mentioned in the statement) and may also attempt to undermine the EU’s coordination with like-minded partners on global standards and economic norms (e.g., under the Trade and Technology Council).
- Beijing and Moscow expressed commitment to readjusting the world order via the United Nations, BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organization and trilateral China-Russia-India format as platforms for facilitating that change. The EU needs to ensure that its proposals resonate not only with like-minded partners, but also with a wider body of developing countries.
Revelations from the Netherlands have put the spotlight on academic cooperation between China and Europe. The Dutch public broadcaster NOS uncovered that between 2018 and 2021, the Free University of Amsterdam received between EUR 250,000 and 300,000 annually from China’s Southwest University of Political Science & Law (SUPSL). The money went to fund the Free University’s Cross-Cultural Human Rights Centre (CCHRC) to “develop a global vision on human rights”.
This cooperation has raised more than a few eyebrows. Although the contract acknowledged adherence to academic independence, it did require the Centre to pay particular attention to alternative views of human rights that “do not get the attention they deserve because of existing power relations”. As the SUPSL was the sole funder of the Centre, it created a relationship of dependency. Indeed, the CCHRC’s website hosted articles lauding China’s human rights records, including one, since taken down, which asserted that “there is no discrimination of Uyghurs or other minorities in [Xinjiang]”.
Under heavy public pressure, the Free University suspended the CCHRC on January 26. Yet sources within the Centre made clear this was “definitely not the choice of the Centre”, with its director, Tom Zwart, making clear that he found nothing wrong with the cooperation. From this, it is reasonable to infer that the Centre was not so much subject to covert influence as it was largely aligned with Beijing’s outlook on human rights from the get-go.