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Europe and China at a Crossroads

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Europe and China at a Crossroads

4 scenarios for China-EU relations amid the war in Ukraine.

Europe and China at a Crossroads
Credit: Depositphotos

As both sides prepare for the virtual China-EU summit on April 1, China-EU relations have reached an unprecedented stalemate. Reactions to the war in Ukraine and perceptions about the ensuing political crisis differ widely. Although the war is a major concern for Chinese diplomacy, and President Xi Jinping pointed out that “China does not want to see the situation in Ukraine to come to this,” Chinese and European assessments of the situation mostly lie worlds apart.

The understanding of the war’s root causes, the assessment of implications, risks, or potential solutions – in all these areas, the Chinese leadership on the one hand and the European governments and the EU Commission in Brussels on the other hand have expressed very different, at times even contrary, positions. The future of international relations appears inevitably moving toward a world divided into spheres of influence and newly defined military alliances; in this world, mistrust, fear of vulnerability, and economic protectionism are about to become dominant features of politics.

The ongoing war in Ukraine has the potential to turn the already troubled China-EU relationship into an inoperable one. While Europe and China are at a crossroads, it is a crucial exercise to find ways out of this quagmire. It starts with recalling the key grievances on both sides.

European Objections to Chinese Positions

Europeans first and foremost do not understand why the Chinese leadership has not yet condemned Russia as the aggressor against Ukraine or – for a start – openly distanced itself, at least in degrees, from Russia. Regardless of what caused the conflict, Russian troops moved into Ukraine; furthermore, Russian missiles continue to intentionally destroy civilian targets such as apartment blocks, theaters, and hospitals, causing terrible destruction and pain.

Second, China’s rhetorical balancing act of supporting “security concerns of all countries (including Russia)” and, simultaneously, indicating that the “purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter should be jointly upheld” is seen in Europe as support of Russia. While there is a fear that the Chinese government could undermine sanctions against Russia, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has made clear that only China could effectively mediate in this conflict.

Third, it seems that Chinese officials and academics fail to acknowledge that this war is a shock for all Europeans. The level of death, the destruction of cities all over Ukraine, the increasing number of refugees moving westward, and the geographic as well as emotional proximity of the war will fundamentally change European sentiments toward common security, economic dependencies, and national sovereignty for years to come. This is most visible in the German government’s change of defense policies, epitomized in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s speech in the Bundestag a few days after the Russian invasion started.

Fourth, the risks of this war are not fully understood in China. This includes, for instance, the potential internationalization of the conflict. As of now the fighting parties are Russia and Ukraine, but the moment NATO troops get involved, Russia resorts to nuclear blackmailing, or China delivers weapons systems to Russia, we are at the doorstep of World War III. In addition, the war already is having an immense global impact in a range of sectors, including global food supplies, international financing, and the stability of the world economy.

Chinese Objections to European Positions

Chinese counterparts emphasize that Europeans do not understand China’s specific threat perception vis-a-vis the United States and how it is connected – from a Chinese viewpoint – to Russia’s security perception regarding NATO enlargement. NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe is being compared with recent geopolitical maneuvering by the U.S. and its allies in China’s immediate Asia-Pacific neighborhood, particularly concerning the Indo-Pacific strategies and the emerging alliances of Quad and AUKUS. In this sense, China perceives NATO expansion as one key factor among the root causes for the current conflict.

Second, it is hard for European officials to accept the Chinese position that China is not a “war party” and that it is not part of the conflict; even more so, that China has developed its own position toward Russia, Ukraine, Europe, and the U.S. trying to keep the balance between them. However, Chinese Ambassador to U.S. Qin Gang also clarified that “there is no forbidden zone for cooperation between China and Russia, but there is also a bottom line, which is the tenets and principles established in the U.N. Charter.”

Third, for China, the war demonstrates that European governments and the EU are not independent from the United States. The Europeans are not fully aware of the re-emergence of transatlantic bloc politics, which ultimately means the loss of European autonomy in international affairs. China is, thus, confronted with U.S. containment in the Asia-Pacific and sees Europe giving up its idea of autonomous relations with China.

Fourth, regardless of the current conflict China like many other countries including India, South Africa, Turkey, Israel, or Saudi Arabia has had and will continue to have legitimate economic and military cooperation with both Russia and Ukraine.

Four Plausible Futures for China-EU Relations

These grievances about the war in Ukraine – of which we have only mentioned a few major examples – mirror deeper cognitive and political frictions that are likely to drive Sino-European relations in the immediate future. The upcoming China-EU summit is thus the most important meeting in years. To understand its implications, and possible trajectories, the scenarios below offer a helpful canvas to discuss potential steps for more China-EU coordination on the war in Ukraine.

This analytical exercise develops plausible scenarios of the (near) future to identify obstacles as well as opportunities. In these difficult times, it facilitates thinking about how to overcome the shimmering threat of conflict escalation. The main trajectory of China-EU relations can be described by two dimensions: on the one hand, the sustainability of political systems (resilience vs. vulnerability) and, on the other hand, the interoperability between economic, social, and technical systems (integration/connectivity vs. fragmentation).

A new liberal multilateral peace order

In the most optimistic scenario, the EU and China have built highly resilient societies and political systems. The reconstruction of Ukraine has led to increased infrastructural cooperation, a diplomatic renewal of the U.N. Charter, and flourishing Europe-Asia trade. European ideas such as democracy, peace, social justice, and autonomy are incorporated in a restructured rules-based international order, which is strong enough to exist alongside China’s “community with a shared future for mankind.” From this position of strength and self-confidence, the political, economic, and technological connectivity between the EU and China makes significant progress. A productive and pragmatic competition over standards, regulatory practices, or regulations dominates China-EU exchanges of the future.

Yesterday’s future

This scenario assumes a high degree of economic connectivity with rising social and political frictions. This world is characterized by highly integrated markets and globalized production chains, but states are rather weak. Although governments aim to build up national security and the resilience of their respective political systems, hybrid threats such as disinformation campaigns, economic coercion, targeted sanctions, or criminal cyberattacks are daily occurrences. Economically, China and Europe benefit highly from integrated markets and production chains, but the tense security situation is causing political and social upheavals in European societies. The normative power of the EU erodes slowly and value-based decision-making no longer influences politics. Fundamental rights are shattered, which leads to political radicalization in European societies coupled with growing hostility toward a strong acting China.

The West vs. the rest

In this scenario, the China-EU summit in April 2022 failed; positions on both sides reached an unprecedented and insurmountable stalemate. Lines of communications on all levels are severed. In this world, societies and national governments are highly vulnerable, which is why they aim to build up like-minded political blocs. Mistrust is omnipresent and increased transatlantic cohesion is pitted against a Russian-Chinese bloc; the dominating logic of international relations follows the “if you are not with me, you are against me” principle. Regionalized trade relations and the trend of deglobalization intensify. National protectionism is on the rise and global trade, supply chains, and connectivity are limited to a minimum. Further, no international arms control is in place and regional and global arms race is in full swing. Societies in both Europe and Asia are seeing a significant loss of cohesion and political turmoil.

Multipolar world

In this scenario, the EU’s strategic autonomy is strengthened toward both the United States and China. This path combines high political resilience with global economic, social, and technological fragmentation, which accelerates the formation of blocs. In each of the respective blocs, the world is indeed poorer but also very secure. Global production chains are a thing of the past; connectivity is very much limited to the particular bloc. Internationally, commercial, cultural, and academic exchanges are declining as disconnectivity exists between the different blocs. It is a world in which hyper-nationalism prevails and the fight over resources becomes intrinsic. All this leads to the destabilization of entire regions and the ascent of proxy wars waged by the U.S., Russia, China, or Europe.

Options for De-escalation

Three out of these four scenarios paint a bleak picture of future China-EU relations. The future of diplomacy as a foundation of sustainable cooperation is on a knife edge. Europe and China would be well advised to understand that they should get involved in stabilizing multilateralism as long as they are capable of doing so – before the war in Ukraine has escalated to another level.

We believe that, despite the noted differences, Europe and China can and should consider various steps to mitigate the long-term effects of the war in Ukraine.

First, keep lines of communication open (and encourage exchanges on various political levels). A key here is to contemplate this conflict as a long-term issue, not just a brief war. Forward-looking diplomacy means preparing for a conflict situation that could go on for months or even years and also could further escalate. At the same time, a long-term perspective anticipates the necessities and opportunities of a complex reconstruction phase in both Ukraine and Russia.

Second, set up a task force to identify common interests and global risks of the war in Ukraine and discuss possible options in the framework of U.N. system. To enable efficient proceedings, different goals and levels should be distinguished. China and the EU must 1) coordinate to enable a ceasefire as quickly as possible; 2) create an international environment conducive for peace talks; and 3) coordinate on the U.N. level to prepare for the necessary security assurances and arrangements after the war.

In the short term, various concerted actions could be realized. Both sides could jointly condemn the use of force against civilians; work on a joint resolution in the U.N. Security Council calling for humanitarian corridors from Kviv, Mariupol, and other Ukrainian cities, and jointly secure logistics and food supplies through World Food Program and U.N. channels to especially vulnerable countries in the Global South including Lebanon, Sudan, and Yemen.

In the mid-term, various concerted actions could be realized. Both sides could consider a U.N. peacekeeping mission to implement a ceasefire and enable post-conflict stability at the Russia-Ukraine border – and especially facilitate a Russian military withdrawal. They could call for an emergency meeting of the G-20 for both peace talks and post-war reconstruction. The EU and China might find a different approach from Syria and link the Belt and Road and the Global Gateway initiatives to work together for the reconstruction of Ukraine.

In the light of these scenarios, the chances to prevent China-EU relations from deteriorating remain small. Still, both sides would benefit strongly from stabilizing their relationship. So even if, for some, these steps seem a bridge too far for the moment, prudent diplomacy needs to attempt to work toward preempting certain outcomes.

A change of mindset is a crucial prerequisite here: Getting out of the pandemic-induced isolation and avoiding the mental logic of “internal circulation” and black-and-white thinking. Instead, robust and more diverse communication channels between the EU and China are needed for the current and future crisis communication.

Dingding Chen
Contributing Author

Dingding Chen

Dingding Chen is the president of Intellisia Institute.

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Guest Author

Nadine Godehardt

Nadine Godehardt is a senior associate in the Asia Division, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin.

Guest Author

Maximilian Mayer

Maximilian Mayer is a junior professor at the Center for Advanced Security, Strategic and Integration Studies, University of Bonn.

Guest Author

Xin Zhang

Xin Zhang is an associate professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Center for Russian Studies, East China Normal University