Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine sent waves across the European continent. To thwart the brutal military offensive right on the EU’s doorstep, Brussels, together with like-minded allies, have adopted seven packages of sanctions against Russia at an impressive speed. While the unprecedented solidarity across the Atlantic is laudable, the harsh truth is that a strong alliance among Western democracies is simply not enough to stall the war machine of the Kremlin.
China, as the world’s second largest economy and one of the closest political allies of Russia, is perhaps the most critical but still missing piece of the political encirclement of Russia orchestrated by the EU and the United States. Since the onset of the war, Beijing has been reluctant to use the term “invasion” (instead, Beijing labels it as an “issue” or a “crisis”), let alone condemn or even sanction Russia. Moreover, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has repeatedly blamed NATO’s enlargement as the root cause of the tragedy and denounced Western sanctions against Russia as “adding fuel to the flames.”
Just three weeks before Russia’s invasion, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin jointly declared “a friendship with no limits.” It remains unclear whether Beijing was tricked by Moscow to offer such a politically costly commitment, but few observers would dispute that Beijing has taken a pro-Russia neutrality position on the war.
Without doubt, Brussels was irate, if not furious, about Beijing’s neutrality toward such a gross violation of a country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, whose sanctity has been long preached in Chinese diplomacy. In his scathing piece entitled “On China’s choices and responsibilities,” EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell stated rather harshly that “we see the war as a moment of truth where countries have to show their colors.” Brussels’ bitter reflection on China-EU relations against the backdrop of the Ukraine war begs the question: might strategic relations with Beijing be heading towards an irreversible watershed moment?
By and large, dynamics of China-EU relations evolve within and are shaped by the broad U.S.-China-EU strategic triangle. Against the context of all-out strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing, both Brussels and Beijing have good reasons to continue engaging with each other.
As for China, the overarching focus of its foreign policy in the long term is to gain an upper hand in the strategic competition with the United States. At the current stage, Beijing is faced with enormous pressure from Washington on both the political and economic fronts. Since 2021, the Biden administration has moved swiftly to intensify the encirclement of China in the Indo-Pacific region. Through the AUKUS security pact and the Quad summits, all major regional rivals of China, including Japan, Australia, and India, have been assembled under the leadership of Washington. In the economic front, the two global powers have been trapped in a costly trade war for more than five years. According to recent research from the Person Institute for International Economics, the imposed punitive tariffs cover 66.4 percent of U.S. imports from China and 58.3 percent of Chinese imports from the U.S., or roughly $425 billion worth of trade in total.
As if political and economic containment is not enough to cap China’s catch-up in strategic capacity, the U.S. Congress recently passed the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act to consolidate U.S. dominance in advanced technologies, which opens a new front in the tech war between the United States and China.
Faced with an irredeemable confrontation with the U.S., Beijing perceives the EU as a critical partner with special sway that China cannot bear to lose. Most apparently, the EU is the only alternative market where China can maintain access to similar technologies to those offered by the U.S., so as to break the U.S. high-tech stronghold and sustain its ambition for achieving leadership of next-generation technologies. Additionally, unlike China-U.S. relations, China-EU relations have always been defined as being “free from direct geographical conflicts.” Although the controversial rapport between Beijing and Moscow in the context of the Ukraine war adds complexity in this regard, China still argues with relative comfort that it is “not a party that is directly involved in this crisis.”
Most importantly, the EU aspires to be a more autonomous actor in global affairs. This gives Beijing invaluable maneuverability to exploit transatlantic discord and break the political encirclement orchestrated by the United States in the Indo-Pacific. In each of his four exchanges with European leaders after Russia’s aggression, Xi repeatedly urged his European counterparts to “form its own perception of China” and “adopt and an independent China policy.” The thinly veiled aim behind the earnest voice is clearly to embolden the European ambition of keeping a distance from rather than closely following the United States’ China strategy.
For the EU, China is not an insignificant partner either. The EU is essentially a trading block that was established and thrives on the logic of open market principles and economic integration. As the EU’s biggest trading partner in goods since 2020, China plays a critical role in maintaining the stability of the global supply chain and the bloc’s growth prospect. Thus, economic “decoupling” with China, campaigned for by U.S. politicians, is against the EU’s own survival instinct and would inevitably force the EU to seriously re-examine and even reconstruct its growth model, its guiding approach toward multilateralism, and its constitutional nature as a civilian and normative power. In other words, the European answer to China problem partially lies at the institutional root of the EU itself.
The gaps between the EU and U.S. China strategies run deeper than mere economic calculus and are rooted in the different perceptions of global order. Certainly, Brussels and Washington share the same liberal scripts in terms of upholding the rule-based international order and confronting challenges in areas of democracy and human rights and unfair economic practices, but a crucial dimension of Washington’s China strategy – which Brussels does not necessarily share – is the classic concept of “grand strategy for power primacy.” U.S. President Joe Biden did not shy away from stating that “China has an overall goal to become…the most powerful country in the world…that’s not going to happen on my watch.” By contrast, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued back in 2020 that “China’s economic success is not only because it may not comply with certain rules but also because it has capabilities. We must accept fair competition.” For the EU, the rule-based international order is the end goal per se rather than a fender-guard of hegemony.
The intertwined logics of liberal norms and realpolitik embedded in the U.S. China strategy make Brussels constantly suspect that Washington may subsume its hegemonic agenda under the discourse of defending liberal democracy. The worst-case scenario is that the EU is merely a useful instrument of the United States to achieve a tactical advantage over China. This concern is not alarmist. After all, the bitter memories of U.S. unilateralism under the Trump administration did not easily fade away with the passage of time. Some may argue that Biden has largely fixed the transatlantic discord, but France, the mastermind behind the concept of “European strategic autonomy,” may still keep a prudent eye after it slammed the Biden administration for “stabbing [France] in the back” by scuttling a French-Australian defense acquisition deal in favor of its own offer of nuclear submarines.
More recently, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan deepened Europe’s suspicion that the United States’ confrontational move toward Beijing might divert U.S. attention from Ukraine and push Beijing even further toward Moscow, all of which complicates the security situation in the Europe. For this consideration, the EU still sees value in a constructive relationship with China, not least for counterbalancing the potentially devastating consequences of an adrift hegemony.
Make no mistake, even if there are clear gaps between the strategies of the EU and U.S. in their approaches to China, it would be naïve to assume that China can easily play on these gaps to its own favor. Given that Brussels does not have a profoundly different diagnosis of the China problem from Washington, and that Beijing is in an uncomfortably defensive position against U.S. containment, Brussels actually holds a much stronger bargaining position vis-à-vis Beijing. That being said, it is also a delusion that the EU sees completely eye-to-eye with the U.S. on the approach towards China.
Without doubt, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine leaves China-EU relations far from “business as usual.” But the locked-in competition between the U.S. and China also situates the EU in a structural position to play between both sides, especially against China. In this case, Brussels is expected to continue engaging with Beijing so long as the China-U.S. table is not completely overturned and so long as Brussels can still squeeze meaningful concessions from China concerning longstanding complains on imbalanced market access and non-market economic practices. Ultimately, it may be the case that the fate of China-EU relations depends on how far Beijing is willing to cater to the EU’s appetite.