Some years ago, both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang showed a fondness for referencing popular American television shows including “Game of Thrones” and “House of Cards.” While they seen to display a firm grasp on Western pop culture, they seem to lack a thorough understanding of European politics. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent diplomatic tour to Western Europe was a vivid case in point.
While his tour was designed to improve China’s post-pandemic image in Europe, some of Wang’s statements only made things worse for China. In Norway, while answering a question about the Nobel Peace Prize and Hong Kong, Wang said that China won’t allow the politicization of the Nobel Prize by interfering in China’s internal affairs — a response that many in the West read as a Chinese threat against awarding the Nobel Prize to Hong Kong protesters. Later, while in Germany, Wang criticized the Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil’s visit to Taiwan and warned that it would incur a “heavy price” — another threat against a European country for doing something considered normal in a democratic state.
Such incidents aren’t isolated cases, but lately they have become the norm. Simply put, China misunderstands Europe, and that leads to constant China-EU frictions. From Beijing’s mask diplomacy, to Chinese disinformation efforts, to China’s censoring of an article written by all 27+1 EU ambassadors, to its pressuring of Brussels to tone down a report on the aforementioned disinformation efforts, recent developments in China-EU relations reinforce the idea that China does too little to understand the EU, its principles, and its concerns.
China’s run of European mistakes started in 2012, when it decided to set up the 16+1 mechanism with the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, among them both EU members and non-members. Back then, China’s decision was watched with suspicion in Brussels and with every step China has taken in the CEE region the European Union’s fear of division has increased. While the EU seems to have gotten over the 2018 Visegrad (V4) moment, when China inaugurated a V4+China format for meetings with Hungary, Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia, and Wang even praised the V4 as the EU’s “most dynamic force,” things changed a lot in 2019. Two crucial moments were Italy’s decision to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Greece’s addition to the 16+1.
In 2019, China finally succeeded in convincing one big European country to join the BRI, regardless of the criticism it attracted from Brussels, Berlin, or Paris. That country was Italy, one of the founders of the EU. But China’s 2019 goals didn’t stop there; its ambitions went even deeper in Europe, to Greece. During the 16+1 summit, which was held in Croatia, China and the CEE countries welcomed Greece into the grouping, transforming the forum into the 17+1 mechanism. While Greece, led back then by a populist leader, Alexis Tsipras, had nothing to lose, China further fractured its relations with the EU — all just to add a success story, the Greek port of Piraeus, to the rather sparse list of completed projects with the 16+1.
But for the EU, the enlargement of the already-worrisome 16+1 mechanism through the addition of Greece, a country that previously divided the EU to defend China, was a slap in the face. While Greece gave the 17+1 mechanism an endorsement and made it look more successful than it was, this cost China the goodwill of larger European countries, including Germany or France. As Italy and Greece joined the two Chinese initiatives, European governments became to speak of China as a “systemic rival” that “plays on our divisions,” as French President Emmanuel Macron asserted.
It doesn’t seem like China put too much thought into its decision to accept Greece in the 16+1 grouping, nor did it understand very well the repercussions of coaxing Italy into the BRI club. At the same time Beijing saluted Greece’s addition of the mechanism, for instance, it also affirmed that it respects EU laws and standards.
Moments like these have shown that China doesn’t understand the EU at all. While world powers no longer create agreements like the Treaty of Tordesillas, the idea of spheres of influence still exists in their minds. Sixteen formerly communist CEE countries teaming up with a communist great power set off alarm bells in Brussels. The EU doesn’t want any new “Berlin Walls” and it definitely doesn’t want to swap out Russian influence with Chinese in the CEE region, creating a new Iron Curtain. The European Union’s fear of division was mainly generated by China, which failed to understand how sensitive and important this subject is for Brussels.
At the same time, China failed to understand the extent to which it would struggle to gain influence in Central and Eastern Europe, mainly due to the Russian factor. Because the CEE region has always lived in the shadow of a possible Russian threat, these countries are greatly dependent on the United States and NATO. And cecause of their dependence on the U.S. security shield, in a possible China-U.S. conflict, these countries would be very unlikely to take Beijing’s side against Washington. This theory was borne out by the thoroughgoing rejection of Huawei and its 5G technology in the CEE region. In other words, by pressing forward with the 17+1 platform, China lost goodwill with Western Europe and the EU, without winning clear victories or benefits in Central and Eastern Europe.
China may have thought it had an ace up its sleeve: a new generation of European populists, willing to befriend China as a counterweight to the European bloc. Apart from the fear of division, populist leaders are the EU’s biggest nuisance. Inside the EU, the main fault line is not between West and East, nor North and South, but rather between EU supporters and EU skeptics, which frequently happen to be populist leaders. Populists of both left and right-wing persuasion are scattered throughout Europe. The best known are Viktor Orban (Hungary), Luigi Di Maio (Italy), Milos Zeman (Czechia) and, previously, Alexis Tsipras (Greece). All of them profess to be close friends of Beijing, and tend to use China as leverage in their dealings with the European Union, acting as a force of disunity inside the EU. Even recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Italy used China’s mask diplomacy to criticize the EU.
Yet in focusing only on the perceived benefits that it could reap from these relationships, Chinese leaders have overlooked the downsides. It is true that there have been a few benefits for Beijing: Hungary and Greece have watered down criticism of China’s actions in the South China Sea in a joint EU statement, Greece has blocked an EU statement on China’s human rights situation, and the Hungarian ambassador to Beijing was the only EU ambassador not to sign a report criticizing the BRI. But these Chinese gains pale in comparison with the loss of trust in its relations with big European countries, which see China’s embrace of populist leaders as a threat to the EU.
Apart from the populists, there is also China’s general unwillingness to be more open in its dealings with the EU. For example, the EU’s concern regarding the Belt and Road Initiative has been mainly generated by the lack of communication coming from Beijing. China reserved itself the right not to clearly define the BRI, nor talk about its intentions regarding the initiative, so the EU became more cautious about the plan. This stemmed more from the fear of the unknown than a desire to contain China.
Sometimes, China doesn’t even seem to understand the basics of the European Union. The EU is a supranational entity, which receives its mandate from all 27 EU member-states, yet remains separate from the national institutions of each member state. The members of the European Parliament, although they come from each EU country, represent not their countries, but the EU. China’s failure to grasp the bloc’s basic structure became clear when it scolded the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs after an Estonian member of the European Parliament went to Taiwan.
China seems to have missed some of the important rules of being a great power: The need for a fair and unbiased understanding of the world, and the need for caution in choosing its friends, partners, and allies. Beijing doesn’t appear to care if its diplomats start a quarrel or threaten other countries or if it associates itself with populists or dictators, as long as its short-term goals are achieved. But the long-term consequences are more important and this may be the most lasting effect of China’s actions in the international arena. Tours like those that have recently been undertaken by top Chinese diplomats can’t do much to repair a systematically faulty approach toward the EU, which stems mainly from a poor understanding of Europe: its values and mindset, its concerns and its fears. By failing to cultivate this understanding and integrate it in its foreign policy toward the Europe, it will be difficult for China to develop healthy and sustainable long-term relations with European countries. Instead, as we saw with Wang, even a goodwill tour ends up generating bad feelings.
Andreea Brînză is the vice president of The Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP), where she analyzes the geopolitics of China with a focus on the Belt and Road Initiative. You can follow her on Twitter @Andreebrin