The April 1 Summit between the European Union (EU) and China was the first in the aftermath of the Ukraine war – and, for that matter, the first since the shelving of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment in May last year.
Sino-European relations have steadily deteriorated over recent years, in light of rising tensions over security and trade concerns, European criticisms of perceived human rights violations in China, and an escalating cycle of sanctions and counter-sanctions. In hopefully shedding some light on the future of Beijing-Brussels dynamics, this piece seeks to examine China’s vision for Sino-European relations, and the EU in particular, prior to outlining pressing challenges facing the realization of this vision.
What Is China’s Vision for Sino-European Relations?
China’s local, provincial, and central authorities often disagree and compete over conflicting policy visions. Chinese foreign policy, however, especially in relation to Europe, has always been a sphere of relative convergence. More precisely, it is one of a stable bifurcation – on one hand, China seeks to engage the EU as a comprehensive trade-economic-financial partner; on the other hand, China seeks to guard itself and defend vociferously against any and all attempts to weigh in over human rights, labor rights, and security issues, which Beijing expansively and generously term “domestic affairs.”
This bifurcation is stable, in the sense that it has persisted throughout different leaderships. Even in the era of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, China was relatively defiant over issues pertaining to domestic political systems and arrangements, as well as the rights of migrant laborers – for bureaucrats in China, these topics were decidedly none of the EU’s business, to the extent that criticisms were often repelled as “foreign interference.”
As it stands, however, a more complex consensus has been steadily forming, under the confluence of the present Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s sweeping foreign policy visions (top-down), and the dynamically evolving mass attitudes amongst the Chinese public in favor of a more trenchant, confidently ideological modus operandi (bottom-up). There are three pillars that undergird the present Chinese leadership’s vision for how Europe, in ideal terms, engages with China: first, the EU as a vital “pole” in the envisioned post-American hegemonic multipolar order; second, the EU as an instrumental, multidimensional trade-economic-financial partner that serves to absorb the bulk of China’s exports; third, members within the EU – namely, those who had historically been more receptive toward commercial and economic liaison with China – as a critical counterbalance against the United States (and, in the aftermath of Brexit, the United Kingdom). These three pillars encapsulate the way Chinese decisionmakers view the relationship. Even if elements of them may not be particularly plausible, it behooves us to grasp them, in order to make sense of what the Chinese government exudes and articulates.
On the first pillar, many in the Chinese academic and diplomatic space view Europe – under the leadership of Germany, France, and Italy – as a possible pole that could stand independently from the United States and China alike. In reflecting upon the Sino-European summit, Cui Hongjian called upon Europe to eschew a “Cold War mentality” in order to cultivate genuine “strategic autonomy,” so as to enable it to become “one amongst the many poles of a multipolar global order in the future.” As Dingding Chen et al.’s recent excellent article highlights, a prognosis that remains distinctly possible is a multipolar world, where “the EU’s strategic autonomy is strengthened toward both the United States and China.” Per this vision, the independence of the EU from both the United States China does not thereby render it isolated or firewalled off from these dominant players; if anything, in seeking a Europe that is neutral toward both Washington and Beijing, China is hoping for a Sino-European relationship that can be compartmentalized and rendered independent from potential tensions or alignment between Brussels and Washington – easier said than done.
On the second, Europe remains a key – if not most predominant – growth-steering partner to China. The bare facts are clear: China’s current economic developmental trajectory had historically been, and hitherto remains, predominantly driven by investment and export. Both in turn underpin Beijing’s vast account surplus relative to other economies, including the EU (the EU’s trade deficit in relation to China rose from 129 billion euros in 2011 to 249 billion euros in 2021). This trajectory has historically worked (see Matthew Klein and Michael Pettit’s “Trade Wars are Class Wars”) for China, as it opts to suppress domestic consumption and debt in favor of a more manageable and guaranteed (in Beijing’s view) growth model.
Even as China deleverages, through shifting from “quantity-driven” growth to “quality-led” growth, it remains dependent upon foreign capital and imports of its goods. With China-U.S. relations descending to new nadirs under a combination of trade and financial tensions, Europe’s role as a core economic partner has emerged to be all the more important. Preserving ties with European firms, access to European markets, and openness of the European liquidity pool, is thus a mainstay of those who advocate China’s “re-globalization” (such as Zheng Yongnian and Wang Huiyao), a process of deepening and diversifying ties with prospective socioeconomic-cultural partners via multilateral ventures.
The third, and final consideration, is more pertinent to China’s geopolitical calculus in the short to medium term: Europe as a counterbalancing force against the United States and/or a much-discussed “Anglo-American axis” in international relations. A bipartisan consensus has formed in Washington since former President Donald Trump’s ascent: one that portrays China as primarily a rival of the United States and threat to U.S. leadership of the world. That consensus is well noted in Beijing, where leading academics and intellectuals are convinced that a more belligerent turn in U.S. China policy is all but inevitable. A month prior to the Ukraine Crisis broke out, Wang Jisi noted that Sino-American tensions were likely to persist, though a “hot peace” could be maintained. The vitriolic spats and allegations that have emerged in the aftermath of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in late February have rendered a détente in Beijing-Washington dynamics deeply improbable.
It was in this context that Xi and Premier Li Keqiang turned to Europe – with the hopes that the installation of more rigorous, robust guardrails, coupled with clarifying “misconceptions” over China’s stance on Ukraine, would motivate Europe to detach itself from the stance expounded by NATO and the United States. China’s plans hinge predominantly upon what Chinese leaders view to be the pragmatism of the German administration, as under Scholz’s leadership it seeks to balance between domestic pressures for escalating and clarifying his support for the Ukrainian government, and economic-energy considerations pertaining to Russian gas. The hope is that with ever-increasing Sino-German and Sino-French trade ties, Germany and France could serve to defend against the more boisterous criticisms levied toward China in Europe.
Three Key Challenges Ahead for China
While China’s vision is conceptually cogent and theoretically tenable, that does not mean it will in fact materialize. The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and the road ahead for China-EU relations is bumpy.
The primary obstacle to China’s European game-plan constitutes the extent to which public, popular opinions across European states matter in relation to state-level and EU-level policies. The attitudes of the European public toward China have considerably soured over recent years, with a 2020 Central European Institute of Asian Studies poll suggesting a pan-European surge in negative views toward China. Respondents in 10 out of 13 surveyed countries reported significantly more negative than positive views, with Britain, Sweden, France, and Germany evidencing significant deterioration in attitudes toward China between 2017 and 2020.
More recently, the chagrin toward China’s alleged indifference over Russia’s actions in Ukraine has vastly amplified suspicions and fears concerning Chinese motives and compelled many in Europe to explicitly weigh normative-ideological considerations over narrowly economic and trade-centric interests. This prioritization has produced further deterioration in China’s reception and standing amongst European citizens. A purely economically oriented strategy in courting support, in the absence of substantial and noticeable shifts in rhetoric and normative positioning, would not suffice in enabling Beijing to overcome the simmering animosity in Europe.
On a further note, it is apparent that the game-plan outlined above is embedded with the expectation that EU would successfully cultivate strategic autonomy and “decouple” from the United States. The trouble with this interpretation, of course, is that it ignores what the actual volitions of European states are. In portraying European countries as allegedly shaped by the subjugative forces of NATO-Washington, the reductionist worldview here underestimates the extent to which the pan-European identity and solidarity has been reactivated by Russian military aggression. China’s complex, amorphous, and continually evolving Ukraine position is not deemed as sufficiently rooted in moral convictions – this, in turn, has nudged many previously on the fence over Sino-European relations in the direction of pressing for more strategic distancing between Brussels and Beijing. Such distancing could well occur even if the Ukraine war has lessened European trust in NATO (which, from Finland and Sweden’s potentially imminent bids for NATO membership, does not seem to be the case). If the Sino-European relationship is to be repaired, this must be accomplished through Beijing addressing fears in the region that the United States alone could be counted upon to come to Europe’s rescue should Russia press further westward.
Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, the escalating cascade of sanctions between China and EU has, frankly, been mutually destructive. As aptly noted by the chorus of Chinese and European scholars, sanctions are rarely an effective means of resolving international disputes. Individuals targeted by sanctions on both sides are likely to feel both more vindictive and inflamed – with direct escalation as the immediate consequence. If a reset is indeed sought, an olive branch must be extended, whether it be from Beijing or Brussels, in the form of a call for and commitment to mutual lifting of all sanctions. In the absence of such drastic yet necessary concessions, improvements to bilateral relations would remain unlikely.
Multipolarity Calls for Multilateralism
As two young scholars in Britain and China, we share the conviction that a healthy, fruitful reset to Sino-European relations remains in the interest of both parties. There is much that could be gained from the deepening economic, commercial, financial, and human-to-human exchanges between Beijing and Brussels. There are apparent constraints and impediments, as the above highlights. Yet in face of such adversities, we cannot, and must not, relent. Repairing the relationship is worth it – from all stakeholders’ perspectives.
To foster a truly multipolar global order, a multilateralist approach that eschews punitive measures, undue exclusion, hyper-nationalistic isolationism, and diplomatic hubris is indeed in order. If China is to succeed in opening itself up to further collaboration with the EU, it must seek peace in compassion and truth from facts. Empathy and openness remain core virtues in modern diplomacy.
The Ukraine war is a watershed moment for Sino-European relations. If Beijing and Brussels can stand in unison in brokering a tenable ceasefire and post-conflict transition in Ukraine, there yet remains hope. Otherwise, we must brace for a very difficult decade, and beyond, ahead.