Calibrating European China policies – more than just a marginal moment for European foreign and security policy

By Franco Algieri

For a long time, high-level Sino-European meetings followed a more or less recurring pattern. Common and diverging interests were mentioned and in the end the overarching will to cooperate in order to manage interdependence moved both sides closer together. While the Chinese position became more self-assured and demanding it took quite some time for the EU and its member states to adapt their strategies. Calling China not just an “economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership” but also a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance” in the 2019 EU-China strategic outlook could have been interpreted as a turning point from a rather reactive to a proactive European China policy. Even though China scepticism has grown in the EU institutions and many European capitals (in particular in light of China’s strategic positioning since the beginning of the war in Ukraine), a turning away or even de-coupling from China was not sought for and could not have been afforded. What remains, however, is a dichotomy on the European side reflecting the struggle between the interests of sovereign member states’ and the supranational interests of the Commission. 

Consequently, the new dynamics apparent in Sino-European high-level meetings in the early months of 2023 caught broad attention. The recent China visits of German Chancellor Scholz, Spanish Prime Minister Sánchez, French President Macron and EU Commission President von der Leyen, have all signalled that for all the rhetoric the old pattern of Sino-European relations hasn’t really changed – it is simply that Europe’s own dichotomy has become even more visible. Even though there was some heated debate following the quasi tandem France-EU visit to China by Macron and von der Leyen in April, specifically the remarks of the French president on strategic autonomy and a possible Taiwan conflict, all that was really revealed was an end to the illusion of there being something akin to a common EU China strategy. Rather, a calibration of China policies in Europe is underway.

In that context, a new buzz word is getting attention “de-risking”. President von der Leyen explained in a speech at the end of March that “de-risking through diplomacy” and “economic de-risking” will be central elements of the EU’s approach towards China instead of de-coupling. President Macron mentioned in his interview on the way back from China the term “dérisquer” in context of European strategic autonomy. But even though officials from both the European institutions and the member states repeatedly and routinely emphasize their ‘commonness’ towards China there is a world of difference between rhetorical commonness or a policy that can be measured by observable convergence of common action.

Such convergence is hard to find. On the contrary, there are profound divisions within the EU and competition over who should drive something that might be called a European China policy. At the supranational level the Commission manages and coordinates the China policy in those areas where it has legal competence. The European Parliament has also become a strong voice demanding a critical China policy, reflecting values that remain a guiding principle for European foreign policy and which are enshrined in the Treaty on European Union. The Council reflects the determination of the major EU states to keep any supranationalisation of foreign and security policy within limits. At the national level positions range from largely economic-driven competition for partnering with China to those seeking a partial distancing from Beijing.

Differing interests have always been symptomatic of EU-China relations, although current tensions could well increase the intra-European divisions. They are also having a negative effect on efforts to develop transatlantic cooperation and coordination with respect to China and to find corresponding approaches. The United States has never really counted on Europe in the case of a military conflict with China over Taiwan or the South China Sea. However, to suggest that such events are ultimately none of Europe’s business would certainly not improve the US or Chinese perception of either the EU or those member states who still claim to be relevant global actors. In that light, it will be interesting to see whether efforts to strengthen European strategic autonomy in combination with a reluctance for security commitment in the Indo-Pacific might, at some stage, be interpreted as a form of de-coupling from transatlantic relations – not just in Washington but also in several European capitals. In other words, ‘calibrating’ Europe’s manifold China policies should thus be seen as a test for possible future challenges to European foreign and security policy.

Franco Algieri is an associate professor of International Relations at Webster Vienna Private University and a member of the Alphen Group.

Photo Credit: The attached photo belongs to NATO and is used under NATO’s newsroom content policy.