In the past several months, the China-EU relationship has deteriorated to its lowest point since 1989. After the two sides exchanged sanctions over the Xinjiang issue, political disputes are jeopardizing the fate of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, which was celebrated by Chinese and European leaders just a few months ago and is seen as an important milestone in their relationship.
On May 20, the European Parliament decided to freeze the ratification of the agreement, announced that it will not proceed with the agreement until China lifts the sanctions it imposed on European NGOs and individuals, including several members of the European Parliament. The decision did not occur in a vacuum. The views of European political leaders and the public alike on China have become increasingly negative. Top European leaders admitted recently that there are “fundamental divergences” between the two giants, while a Pew survey shows that unfavorable views on China have reached record highs in many European countries. Although China and the EU are still fostering cooperation in areas such as climate change, this can barely save their relationship from a downward spiral.
The drastic fall of China-EU relations did not happen overnight. Both sides have been constantly calibrating their perception toward one another and redefining the other party’s respective role in their overall external relations. This is particularly true for the EU. Recognizing China’s fast-growing power, the EU began to call for a more equal and reciprocal relationship in terms of trade and investment with China in the early 2000s, and expected China to show more respect for democracy and human rights. However, these expectations were proven largely wishful thinking. China insisted on its unique economic system, maintained market-protection policies, and, in the eyes of Europeans, is becoming even more authoritarian. This triggered growing complaints and pessimism across Europe. However, such sentiments were little noticed in China until 2019, when the EU defined China as an “economic competitor” and “systemic rival.”
Certainly, the relationship between China and Europe is shaped by the interaction between the two parties and is affected by external factors – the United States, in particular. However, their relationship was not inevitably doomed to become what it is now. From the perspective of China, there are at least three serious pitfalls in its policy on the EU.
First, China failed to treat the EU as a serious political and security actor. The EU is a superpower in many aspects. It is a strong economy and an important shaping force of the international order. It plays an important role in resolving global issues such as climate change and infectious diseases. Its member states, although they share a tight bond with the United States in the defense realm, are not security dwarfs. They are, together with the EU, key players in tackling security challenges in places such as Libya, the Sahel, Syria, and Ukraine. Besides, the EU holds strong soft power: It creates and leads multilateral institutions, formulates international regulations, and projects invisible influence around the globe. Today, the EU has put forward the concept of strategic autonomy and is trying to play a more decisive role in geopolitical games, demonstrating its growing ambition.
This should have been ample notice to Chinese policymakers. But they have been looking down on the EU and failed to recognize European power and ambition. Policymakers and observers in Beijing refuse to acknowledge the great success of European integration and its remarkable capability to deal with challenges at home and abroad. They take Brussels as a sheer talk shop and the EU as a fragile bloc with deep divides inside that could break into pieces any time.
In terms of foreign policy, China regards the United States as its primary, if not only, target for policymaking. Too often, Beijing looks at its relations with Europe in the context of China-U.S. and EU-U.S. relations, and hopes not to push the EU toward the Americans, so as to prevent the formation of an alliance against it. Chinese policymakers either underestimate the EU’s will and capability or overestimate the EU’s need for the United States. This old-fashioned view of European power and mindset of defining China-EU relations with regards to a third country distort China’s European policy and cloud its understanding of the true EU.
Second, China failed to take the EU’s normative appeals seriously. The EU, for decades, has been underlining the importance of values such as democracy, human rights, and rule of law in its external relations. Its relations with China are not an exception. However, China seems unable to understand and often does not care about the EU’s normative concerns. From the perspective of practical interests, China puts more emphasis on investment and trade relations between the two parties, and when the normative divergences become prominent, it attempts to use the investment and trade “carrot” to “buy” the EU. China has long viewed the EU like a chihuahua that bites without inflicting serious harm, and will keep quiet for at least a while if given a bone. Such a trick indeed worked before, but it will not work always. Business is not the whole of bilateral relations. When norms and values become high on the political agenda, China should not naively believe that the EU will make a Faustian deal.
But China does not have to fight a normative war with the EU either, at least not now. As a result of being strong, China is now being scrutinized and that leads to the problem of “being scolded.” Chinese leaders are annoyed with critics abroad and decided to build a more favorable and popular image on the world stage. But they should be aware that it takes skill and time, perhaps decades, to make such changes. Even then, improvements may diminish but will not eliminate critics. Chinese leaders should not dream of a world where other countries butter them up, like ancient Chinese emperors once enjoyed. It would be wise for them to start to learn to live with international critics, including those from Europe. Meanwhile, Chinese policymakers should do what they can, even the smallest things, to win foreign hearts and minds.
Third, China failed to develop more sophisticated diplomacy with the EU. China has changed rapidly and dramatically in the past decades. However, it seems that Beijing does not have a clear idea of its influence and potential threat to others, and thus acts slowly in responding to changes. In the case of its relations with the EU, China keeps declaring that it aims to establish a deep cooperative partnership with the EU, regardless of the changing perception the EU has of China. China behaves like an ostrich burying its head in the sand, refusing to fix its unpractical view and policy on the EU and recognize the important divergences between the two. But unfortunately, these divergences will not vanish because of China’s ignorance. Instead, they will accumulate and eventually lead to greater troubles.
In addition, while Beijing finds that it has more power to defend its growing interests, foreign concerns over the way it applies that power continue to grow. In recent years, Chinese leaders have repeatedly called on their people to be more confident in their country and on diplomats to show more “fighting spirit.” However, such confidence is becoming arrogance in some cases, while the “fighting spirit” is turning to sheer combative and hostile talk. In such context, Chinese diplomats are becoming “wolf warriors,” and listening, understanding, or compromise might be seen as diffidence and cowardice. The China-EU relationship is one of the victims of that style of diplomacy. Chinese diplomats are flaming European foreign ministries, which only further ruins China’s image among European policymakers and citizens.
To be fair, China is not solely to blame for the deterioration of China-EU relations. However, the carelessness and clumsiness of China’s Europe policy undoubtedly contributed to the fall.
Chinese leaders have set ambitious development goals for 2035, striving to turn China into a modern country by that time. For China, there is nothing more important than reaching these goals. China learned a lot from the EU in the past 40 years of reform and opening up, and it can still do so in the next decades. China should treat the EU as a serious actor, a partner that can generate vital influence on China’s fundamental interests. At the same time, Beijing must show more patience and leave other matters to time.