“China is without doubt one of the key global players. This is a fact, and China will increase its global role. We have to engage with China to achieve our global objectives, based on our interests and values.”
Thus spoke last June High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell. The rise of China and its great power competition against the United States was one of Borrell’s central themes throughout the first year of the new European Commission, and for good reason: fuelled by the coronavirus crisis, the global power relations continued their remodelling at an ever-increasing rate. China has so far made it through the pandemic with less damage than most of the world, much better than the US or Europe. The country’s economy is expected to surpass that of the US within the next decade, and its military power is growing; in the past five years, China’s military spending has increased by around 7.5% annually. At the same time, internal turmoil has at least momentarily weakened American foreign policy power.
The positioning of the European Union to great power relations is essentially clear: the United States is an ally, China is a partner – but at least as much a competitor and a rival. Ultimately, the Communist Party ideology and views of an ideal societal and global order do not fit neatly with liberal Western principles, and in the long run keeping domestic and foreign policy apart is difficult. Yet Europe does really want to take sides, but, in Borrell’s words, to go its own way guided by its own interests and principles – although the road may well pass close to the American lot. But is Europe really following such a road? Or rather a winding, split, and partly overgrown path?
Whether the White House be occupied by Donald Trump or Joe Biden, it is clear that Europe’s attitude towards China cannot and will not be the same as that of the US. This is mere realpolitik, as the United States is the hegemon challenged by China’s rise – not Europe. Seen from Europe, China appears far away, and few European countries are concerned about spheres of influence to the American extent. Indeed, in part the EU wants to think of itself as being above traditional power politics, zero-sum games, and spheres of interest politics.
However, in part the European policy line is more relaxed simply because the line is very faint in the first place. Like so often in hard foreign policy issues, also with relation to China the EU becomes a mere association of states that lack the willingness and the ability to act together.
By and large, the EU member states are actually relatively unanimous about their wishes to China. In the 2016 China Strategy, emphasis lies on multilateralism, climate change, trade balance and technological and infrastructural security. To achieve the objectives, “full unity” among the EU and its member states is demanded. The Strategy was updated in 2019, according to some estimates surprisingly quickly and in strong language.
And yet in practice the Strategy appears vague and indeterminate. For example, in matters of 5G, the common toolbox approved in January 2020 was praised as a historical step towards coordinated European cyber security. Perhaps so, but the member states have interpreted the non-binding common guidelines in wildly different ways. In Sweden, in line with the US and the UK, the Chinese telecom company Huawei has been outright banned from the 5G market due to security concerns. Germany, France, Finland, and several NATO-dependent Eastern European countries have made Huawei’s market access very difficult in practice, without openly mentioning either the company or China. Hungary and Austria consider themselves in line with EU guidelines without apparently any restrictions set on Huawei. In much of EU policymaking, the compatibility of outcomes across member states is what counts. But in foreign policy, rather than being mere adjustments to national contexts, such differences appear as fragmentation and weakness.
A common policy line is difficult to draw when weighed up against the enormous Chinese market. Other member states fear geopolitical domination by France and economic domination by Germany. In some countries, different parties or government sectors have contradictory views about China. All across Europe, business opposes restrictions on China in fear of retaliation.
The latest turn in EU-China relations is the investment agreement reached in late December. Many analysts have regarded the deal as a diplomatic (and perhaps also economic) victory for China – and a snub to the US just before the Biden presidency and a new warm-up of the transatlantic relations.
EU citizens do not harbour great wishes for leadership in China policy either. Around half of Germans and Spaniards and less than a quarter of the French want their country to follow or to lead a common European China policy. A significant share of citizens do not know who should be leading such a policy – or where to exactly.
On the one hand, China is generally disliked. The country’s reputation was bruised already before the pandemic, and in late 2020 it had reached a new low. For example, 63% of the Spaniards, 71% of the Germans, and 85% of the Swedes have a negative opinion about China; in Eastern Europe, the perceptions are somewhat more positive. News coverage about China increasingly frequently involves grievances such as the persecution of Uighurs, violent repressive measures against democracy in Hong Kong, security threats related to Huawei, and the assertive practices of so called “wolf warrior” diplomats – not to mention the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. China’s soft power is limited, and attempts to create or manage it through for instance shipments of protective medical gear or a collaborative censorship of Disney movies have at best had moderate success.
On the other hand, despite their negative perceptions, Europeans are no more willing to assume a tougher political line than their leaders. On the contrary: for example in Sweden, only 11% of citizens want to banish the tough-talking Ambassador Gui Congyou, while the parties behind the proposal, the Left Party, Christian Democrats, and Sweden Democrats, garner a total support of 36%. Similarly, only 24% support ending twin town relations in response to human rights violations. The majority of Europeans see trade with China as somewhat positive and support cooperation with China especially on global issues such as climate change, epidemics, and counterterrorism.
The views of EU citizens demonstrate a clear-eyed and constructive sense of realism. At the same time however, a large share of the survey respondents are not sure how successful their national China policies have been or what practical policy measures should be undertaken. Like decision-makers, citizens, too, seem to find it difficult to strike a balance between economic, security, and value interests.
No EU member state can efficiently withstand hardened Chinese diplomatic actions, such as recently experienced by Australia. In promoting its own interests, China does not hesitate to remind its “opponents” how big it is and how small they are. In Europe, the threats have been directed especially at Sweden, but also other countries, including Finland, have received warnings. Intimidating the entire European Union is much harder, but for such a deterrent to work, the Union’s policy line would require more clarity, prioritisation, and – well, unity. As a starting point, the relatively broad common understanding – even if fragmented – is already pretty good in the EU context.
A sober and diplomatic approach to a giant is certainly wise, and cooperation on global problems, such as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, is absolutely crucial. Caution must, however, not be due to fear, and neither must politics and policy be guided by short-term economic interests alone. The EU, the member states, and even the citizens must clarify to themselves, which China actually dominates the relations to Europe: the partner, the competitor, or the rival?
TEXT Anna Savolainen
PICTURE Lukasz Kobus
The author is a Political Scientist and a doctoral researcher at the European University Institute in Florence. She has previously worked at the European Commission and as an Analyst in the private sector on issues concerning Nordic cooperation and EU Affairs.