How China Lost Europe

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How China Lost Europe

China’s European diplomacy is on a losing streak. Both sides may come to regret it.

How China Lost Europe

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, left, and European Council President Charles Michel speak during a media conference at the end of an EU-China summit at the European Council building in Brussels, April 1, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Olivier Matthys

Does China value its relationship with Europe? Given the significance of mutual economic ties – second only to those with the United States – the answer should be an unambiguous yes. But Beijing’s diplomacy toward the continent says otherwise. 

Despite numerous high-profile visits to China by European leaders, from France’s Emmanuel Macron to Germany’s Olaf Scholz, and various European tours by top Chinese officials such as Prime Minister Li Qiang and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the reality is that distrust toward China across European capitals is now at an all-time high. 

Far from easing tensions, the recent uptick in interactions and reciprocal visits in preparation for the first post-pandemic face-to-face summit between the EU and China, scheduled for December 7-8, has instead hardened attitudes on both sides. “China hopes that the European Union (EU) will adopt a more pragmatic and rational attitude in cooperation with China,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned France’s top diplomatic advisor on October 31. “We must recognize that there is an explicit element of rivalry in our relationship,” Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commission president, told the annual conference of EU ambassadors on November 6. 

The only thing that both parties seem to agree on at the moment is that responsibility for this woeful state of affairs lies entirely with the other side. 

Talking Past Each Other

Mutual recriminations about unfair trade practices, veiled protectionism, lack of reciprocity and negative characterizations are nothing new. Trading barbs publicly ahead of a high-level meeting can be part of a repertoire of negotiating strategies. After all, Europe’s most powerful leaders, such as Macron and Scholz, are proponents of finding ways to accommodate China’s rise as a global power, not of alienating it. And views about how to approach the China issue differ widely across the 27 member states, in large part due to their divergent economic, trade and industrial interests. 

Yet, the European Union as a whole is inexorably moving toward a much more defensive, and indeed somewhat protectionist stance under the banner of “de-risking” its relationship with China. In large part, this is Beijing’s own doing. 

The main driver of European alienation has been China’s puzzling failure to appreciate the existential character of the Ukraine issue in European mindsets, almost two years into the conflict. China’s pro-Russian position – refusing to condemn the invasion and laying the blame for the conflict squarely on the failure of the West to heed Russia’s security concerns – was frustrating to Europeans from the beginning but not incomprehensible against the larger background of the mounting geopolitical rivalry between Beijing and Washington. What was hard to comprehend, though, was China’s insistence that differences over Ukraine be left out of the agenda of China-EU discussions.  

“China wanted to set aside our differences on Ukraine, they didn’t want to talk about Ukraine,” Josep Borrell, the EU foreign affairs chief, recounted to the EU Parliament after the first virtual China-EU Summit held after the invasion in March 2022. “This was not exactly a dialogue, maybe a dialogue of the deaf… We could not talk about Ukraine a lot, and we did not agree on anything else.” 

Beijing’s failure to appreciate how primordial the Ukraine issue is to Europeans, who were suddenly facing the triple shock of the return of war on the continent, the reappearance of an aggressive military power at their back door, and escalating concerns about economic destabilization, caused unprecedented damage to China’s image in the eyes of European decision-makers. Arguing “neutrality” was one thing; insisting that the conflict shouldn’t play a role in how Europe approached China was another one. 

To make matters worse, Beijing’s approach to most economic and security issues brought up since – such as the ballooning trade deficit in favor of China, the vulnerability of European supply chains, or the deteriorating business environment for Europe’s firms operating in China – has been to delegitimize such concerns and attribute them to “incorrect views” or the result of Washington’s influence. A great deal of diplomacy that could have been devoted to serious negotiations over the past 18 months was instead spent on lecturing Europe about why characterizing China as a “strategic rival” was wrong and had to be dropped before any serious discussion could take place. 

Partner or Rival?

In earlier decades, Beijing might have been able to successfully shrug off European sentiment, confident that the strength and tone of its bilateral relations with individual European countries was enough of an anchor to prevent the bloc from taking collective action that would run counter to Chinese interests. This time, though, a critical difference was that the European Union institutions were already midway through a slow but inexorably moving process of articulating the parameters of the EU approach to China. While Beijing had been identified since 2019 by the European Commission as a “partner, competitor and rival,” there was in fact very little agreement about what it meant in practice, and deep resistance to disrupting relations with a rapidly rising global power.

Not anymore. Beijing’s tone-deaf diplomacy on Ukraine, excessive displays of chumminess with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and refusal to take European economic concerns seriously means that positions emerging through layers of consensus-building within Brussels institutions have become more and more defiant. 

Partisans of a harder line on China, such as European Commission President von der Leyen, have had plenty of elements to point to indicating that China was overtly pursuing objectives that were detrimental to Europe’s interests and security, such as providing diplomatic cover for Russia or being intransigent in its approach to trade and investments issues. European advocates of a softer line, meanwhile, couldn’t even rely on traditional allies, such as industrial lobby groups or China-based Chambers of Commerce, which were increasingly despondent as a result of President Xi Jinping’s turn away from market-friendly reforms.  While in earlier eras there was always the prospect that a future leadership succession would bring a turn of policy, Xi’s ruler-for-life status brought such hopes to an end.

Adding to European wariness, in late February 2023, China issued a 12-point “Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis” that reiterated that violations of the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity could be justified if neighboring countries had “reasonable security concerns” (合理安全关切; clumsily rendered as “legitimate security concerns” in the official English translation). While the primary purpose was to find a way to defend Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while shoring up China’s claims over its own periphery (especially Taiwan and the South China Sea), the vague framing, without any reference whatsoever to international law, raised concerns about China’s commitment to the bedrock principles that have underwritten collective security since 1945. 

That same month, Xi traveled to Moscow, in an unambiguous display of support to Putin, reinforcing the perception that Beijing was now seeing opposition to the West as the key driver of its geopolitical stance.

The consequences were not long to come. “How China continues to interact with Putin’s war will be a determining factor for China-EU relations going forward,” von der Leyen declared in March in a landmark speech about the EU Commission’s approach to China. “Defining a European strategy towards China – defining what success looks like – must start with a sober assessment of our current relations and of China’s strategic intentions.” 

The main thrust of Europe’s approach in the coming years, she announced, would be “de-risking not decoupling” its relationship with China, so as to reduce dependencies and vulnerabilities that threaten Europe’s national security and economy. “The Chinese Communist Party’s clear goal,” she added, “is a systemic change of the international order with China at its center.”

Two months later, the European Council (the body made of the heads of state or governments, and presided over by Charles Michel, that defines the EU’s overall political direction and priorities) issued equally stern “conclusions on China.” “The European Union will continue to reduce critical dependencies and vulnerabilities, including in its supply chains, and will de-risk and diversify where necessary and appropriate,” the document read. 

While stressing that “the European Union and China have a shared interest in pursuing constructive and stable relation” and that the EU “does not intend to decouple or to turn inwards,” the document read like a determined program to stand up to Beijing on every sensitive topic, including Ukraine, the lack of a “level playing field,” stability “in the East and South China Seas,” as well as human rights in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong. 

Divide and Rule No More

For a long time, a hallmark of Beijing’s diplomacy in Europe had been its ability to skillfully play one country against the other, in order to prevent the emergence of a united European front. What Chinese diplomats failed to see in post-Russian invasion Europe was that Ukraine provided this unity; that EU decisions were the result of carefully negotiated consensuses, especially as they involved significant budgetary sacrifices from members; and that Europe’s military dependence on the United States and NATO did not mean that Washington was driving Europe’s collective policy toward China. 

Time and again, Beijing had opportunities to recalibrate its approach to diplomacy in Europe. Instead, it failed to see the centrality of the Ukraine question, overestimated its ability to influence intra-institutional dynamics within the EU organs, stuck to outdated tactics to influence European decision-makers, and stopped engaging meaningfully on economic and trade issues. China’s diplomats underestimated the optics of the Russian embrace and the sensitivity of trying to turn Global South sentiment against the West, and vainly hoped that tarring EU positions as being puppeteered by Washington would lead Brussels to back down.  

A June 2023 interview by the China’s ambassador to the EU, Fu Cong, is emblematic of how out of step with European realities Beijing’s diplomacy remains to this day. In a wide-ranging conversation, Fu challenged the EU’s right to raise national security issues (“For the EU to talk about national security, I don’t think that is even appropriate”); feigned not to be aware of decision-making processes within the European Union (“It seems that the Commission is ordering the member states to do things that the member states may not agree to. So that is the most confusing part of the EU as far as I’m concerned”); and pretended that Europe’s quest for greater “strategic autonomy” only meant decreasing dependence on the U.S., not on China (“We support the strategic autonomy of the EU… [concrete measures] need to be implemented and need to be reflected in the foreign policies of the EU countries”). Most tellingly, he never once mentioned Ukraine or Russia by name.

In July, in perhaps the biggest blow to Beijing’s diplomacy in Europe so far, Beijing’s largest and historically most reliable European trade partner, Germany, published its first-ever “China strategy,” designed to guide the action of the federal government. While crafted in careful language – it was the result of compromises between coalition partners and different branches of the government – the document made clear Berlin’s growing disquiet: “For Germany, China remains a partner, competitor and systemic rival,” Foreign Minister Annabella Baerbok commented. “But the aspect of systemic rivalry has in recent years increasingly come to the fore.” 

The Gap Widens

Over the last two months, the EU has sent one top official delegation after another in preparation for the December China-EU Summit. But the gulf between Brussels and Beijing remains as wide as ever. 

In October, Borell embarked on a last-ditch attempt to change Beijing’s mind ahead of the summit. “We expect from China to take us more seriously and stop looking at us through the lens of its relations with others. Our assessment and conduct is driven by our own interests,” Borell stated. “The war in Ukraine has transformed us… Russia represents a huge threat for our security,” he continued. “Our commitment with Ukraine is huge: more than 80 billion euros (US$85 billion). No one in Europe questions seriously the necessity of such a support.”

His plea fell on deaf ears. “Regarding the Russia-Ukraine conflict, China doesn’t need Europeans to tell us what to do,” Wu Hailong, China’s former ambassador to the EU, hit back a few days later at a high-level meeting of European and Chinese think tanks. “We know what we should do.”

Predictably, the economic tit-for-tat has continued unabated. In October, the EU announced it was launching an anti-subsidy investigation into imports of electric vehicles from China. In November, China denounced the EU’s key measure to accelerate its green transition, a carbon tax on products imported from jurisdictions with lower standards, as “a new trade barrier” and a form of “naked protectionism.” 

That same month, the EU Chamber of Commerce in China took the unusual step of publicly criticizing the Shanghai Trade Fair as a “political showcase.” “European businesses are becoming disillusioned as symbolic gestures take the place of tangible results needed to restore business confidence,” the Chamber’s vice president told the media.

Many in Europe celebrate the tougher line coming from Brussels. Indeed, as scholars Matthias Matthijs and Sophie Meunier have convincingly shown, the era when Europe was engaging with the world purely on economic terms is over. Geoeconomics – with its focus on the geopolitical implications of economic decisions – is now what guides the EU and its members. 

While it is true that Washington does exert considerable influence in Europe (and isn’t above using divide-and-rule tactics itself), it is not the exclusive driver of European attitudes toward China. Unless Chinese diplomacy adapts to this new reality and accepts that EU concerns can’t be brushed aside in the name of preexisting “extensive common interests,” Beijing will find it increasingly difficult to engage with Europe – and this at a time when China can hardly afford more strain on its already sputtering growth.

What Europe Should Do

But Europe, too, needs recalibrating its approach to China. The consequences of an unraveling relationship with Beijing could cut deep into the bloc’s long-term growth. The EU is already facing lower growth prospects for the global economy, a protectionist turn by the United States, escalating budgetary pressures as a result of increased energy costs, support to Kyiv, the need to finance the “green transition,” and costs associated with EU enlargement plans – which now include Ukraine.

Next month’s China-EU Summit is unlikely to escape the downward dynamics of the last few years. Yet, it would be a mistake for Europe to give up the prospects of stabilizing its relationship with Beijing, and abandon entirely the direction of the relationship between the West and China to the United States. 

It is one thing to recognize that Washington is still the indispensable guarantor of the continent’s security, and that Europe has no choice but to heed the fact that its ally has identified China as its overarching strategic concern. It is another thing altogether for the EU to tether itself to the vagaries of U.S. domestic politics, or an unknown future occupant of the White House. Falling in line with Washington’s hardening positions on Taiwan, publicizing the need for NATO to involve itself in the Indo-Pacific, or exaggerating Beijing’s capacity to build an alternate world order within the words of Ursula von der Leyen – “China at its center” yields no benefits to Europe and strengthen Beijing’s conviction that Washington is behind every European step.

What’s more, given that Beijing is the only actor to have real leverage over Moscow, it is not in Europe’s interest to burn bridges without good, well-thought-through, reasons. Some in Washington will see this as yet another example of European pusillanimity, but the reality is that the more China feels isolated, the more it is likely to close ranks with Russia – which ultimately holds the keys to, if not ending the conflict, at least leading to an equilibrium of sorts. Instead of simply lamenting the fact that China is becoming ever closer to Moscow, Europe should be looking at ways to incentivize Beijing away from what remains a partnership of convenience with Russia, while progressively shoring up its capacity to defend itself.

For European negotiators on their way to Beijing, a key lesson to draw from the recent Biden-Xi meeting in San Francisco should be that despite the welcome decisions to enhance communications at various levels, there was no progress whatsoever on economic issues. To expect that Beijing will approach the China-EU summit next month differently would be wishful thinking. 

Instead of pursuing an elusive middle way between China and the United States, Europe should seek to make itself indispensable to both. The first step in that direction is to reduce critical dependencies on both superpowers and not fall for the mirage of a return to a pre-Russian invasion world.

The great historian Tony Judt once remarked that the success of post-war Europe was less the result of a forward-looking project than “the insecure child of anxiety.” Sino-European relations are no exception. The sooner Beijing recognizes that its approach to Ukraine is causing more, rather than less, anxiety among its European counterparts, the less “de-risking” it will face from Europe. As for Europe, whose strength resides mostly in being a trading power, it should keep the focus on what is at stake on the continent, and not let itself be dragged into a draining status contest between the United States and China.