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The EU Lacks a United and Truly Transatlantic China Strategy. It Doesn’t Need One.

“Who do I call if I want to call Europe?”

While serving as Secretary of State in 1973, Henry Kissinger tried to grasp whether European countries were able to develop common strategies by asking the infamous question: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” Since then, member states have consistently tried to harmonize their approaches, yet the continent still seems unable to demonstrate its unity and find a common voice when dealing with external as well as internal challenges, be it trade, foreign policy, or security. It is not hard to find the last time when an EU official was publicly confronted with Europe’s struggle to present itself as a compact block. Just last February, while on an official visit in Moscow, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Joseph Borrell, had to passively witness Russia’s top diplomat, Sergey Lavrov, rebuking  Europe for being “an unreliable partner.”

With the “China question” now at the forefront of the transatlantic agenda and the Biden Administration urging European countries to get on board with a new U.S. strategy, the eternal dispute over European (dis)unity has once again gained momentum. While the recent G7 and NATO summits have certainly proved useful to European countries in getting a sense of Washington’s priorities vis-à-vis China, they have once again revealed the underlying discrepancies within Europe´s overall attitude towards Beijing. Whereas the participants were able to put out a joint final communique and agree on the core issues, i.e. human rights, democracy, and trade, various European leaders have immediately shown caution when referring to China. Right after the NATO summit for instance, French President Emmanuel Macron relativized the alliance’s categorization of China as a “global security challenge,” underlining that “it must not divert us from the heart of NATO’s tasks.” A few months earlier, Macron had already made clear that “a situation to join all together against China, this is a scenario of the highest possible conflictuality. This one, for me, is counterproductive,” underpinning his reluctance about building a tight front against Beijing. The voices coming from Germany, the other leading force in Europe, are not much different. Besides Angela Merkel’s traditional unduly careful wording on the dossier, Armin Laschet, the candidate with the highest chances of becoming Germany’s next chancellor, openly dreaded the idea of a new cold war with China, declaring that “The question is—if we’re talking about ‘restraining’ China, will that lead to a new conflict? Do we need a new adversary?” 

Despite these clear differences between the two sides of the Atlantic, the political and academic debate continues to be framed in a way where the outcome always consists of the EU having to choose amongst two aut-aut options: either blindly following the Biden Administration´s strategy or joining China’s side and thus ceding critical ground and risking losing sovereignty. However, these premises actually raise more questions than they answer, since both “solutions” clearly run counter to the EU’s interests and expectations, and most importantly, its nature as a “centrist” power, both in geographical and political terms. In order to escape from this rather uncomfortable position of being “caught in the middle,” instead of unconditionally aligning with one side or the other, Europe should free itself from the shackles of an obsolete “block-mentality” and the phantom of “one comprehensive China policy” at any cost and find its strength in a fluid approach based on flexibility, vigilance and creativity.  

Shifting Paradigms

Still a somewhat heretical thought until a few years ago, the notion that the global order in place since the end of the Cold War is undergoing profound changes is now widely accepted. The transition from unipolarity to multipolarity is unfolding under our eyes, and traditional political theories which have shaped the way humanity has looked at great power competition and the forces operating within the international system since World War II seem to have lost some of their initial explanatory reach in the face of China’s rise. The last states which assertively challenged an existing balance of power with global implications were Wilhelmine Germany, Nazi Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union. Though their ambitions were systematically and successfully curbed by democratic systems. Not until the rise of China had the world witnessed the ascension of a country nurturing a political, economic, and social system so antithetical to the Western one that, although a major power, would refrain from displaying an openly aggressive and recklessly expansionist behavior. And while China’s new foreign policy does certainly entail expansionist and to some degree repressive features, Beijing´s new doctrine is far from being profoundly destructive or even revisionist. The model followed by the leadership under Xi Jinping is a much more sophisticated one in which the often too narrow categories of the realist and liberal schools aren’t exactly a perfect fit. Notably, the complexity of this path lies in its hybrid nature and ability to draw from the toolkit of hard power (e.g. “wolf-warrior diplomacy” and assertive military maneuvers in the South China Sea) as much as from critical tenets of multilateral cooperation usually scorned by authoritarian regimes. Nothing reflects this new paradigm more poignantly than Xi Jinping’s speech announced  in Beijing on the day of the CCP´s 100th anniversary, where phrases like “Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people” coexist with much more nuanced formulas such as “…we will work to build a new type of international relations and a human community with a shared future […] and use China’s new achievements in development to provide the world with new opportunities.”  

Against this backdrop, and with the United States grappling with a number of internal challenges, it might be a particularly wise choice for the EU to find its position on the global stage as a flexible force and make its approach toward China depend on a case-to-case instead of a holistic basis. The alternative would mean abiding by Washington’s tout court rejection of virtually any Chinese initiative. A recent example of this modus operandi in practice has been the EU´s handling of the CAI deal (Comprehensive Agreement on Investment). Whereas prominent EU leaders, chiefly Angela Merkel, have repeatedly backed the agreement, conscious of its significant benefits, they have not shied away from imposing sanctions, along with the U.S. and U.K., on Chinese officials over human rights violations in the autonomous province of Xinjiang. But thinking that this will stand in the way of further negotiations between Brussels and Beijing is fanciful  on the American side. Previously, the contentious debate around the issue of a 5G-Network in Europe provided by Huawei had followed a similar pattern. Harshly criticized by the Trump Administration, the possibility of installing such a network didn’t come as a shock at all for many European leaders. As far back as in 2019, Germany’s Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, Peter Altmaier, argued that “the risk of Huawei transmitting data to Chinese intelligence agencies is no greater than what ‘unreliable’ US has already done.” On a similar note, France’s Emmanuel Macron declared in 2020 that although favoring European companies as Ericsson and Nokia, he wouldn’t be opposed to Huawei’s involvement in setting up 5G telecommunication networks.

However, irrespective of the benefits some joint initiatives may carry, the EU should nonetheless continue to maintain a vigilant approach and, where this might be necessary, not hesitate to put on the brake in its dealings with China. But ignoring altogether the upsides of broader cooperation with Beijing merely to demonstrate unconditional loyalty to whatever strategy the U.S. plans on implementing would be utterly self-defeating.  

Transatlantic Uncertainties

A further aspect that should encourage European countries in developing a somewhat “chameleonic” (but not relativistic) mindset at this very moment is the current academic and political debate in the U.S. on what China strategy the new administration should pursue. For as coherent and resolute as President Biden appears to be about framing his strategy through the prism of a “democratic front,” it remains to be seen to what extent and if at all this path will effectively contribute to creating a stable relationship with Beijing and guaranteeing a certain degree of stability in the international arena. Contrary to what many in the liberal establishment on both shores of the Atlantic believe, so far the approach the new Administration has shown doesn’t exactly represent a clear break with the past. And although alliances have again taken up the importance they once held, there’s undoubtedly great continuity on several issues, from trade to security. Additionally, a U.S. strategy relying primarily on an “us versus them” dispute between the “democratic front” on one side and authoritarianism on the other, could soon turn out to be extremely perilous and quickly result in a tit-for-tat rhetorical quagmire. The heated exchanges during the high-level U.S.-China summit held in Anchorage, Alaska, earlier this year should serve as an example for what is likely to happen when the premises of diplomatic dialogue are ideological ones. Therefore, it remains hard to assess whether the White House will further sharpen its stance or steer toward a more nuanced approach. Taking advantage of this transitional period, the EU should continue to preserve some degree of autonomy and forge its own new path.

Furthermore, learning from recent experiences, the EU should also consider that phases of increased transatlantic turbulence and American unreliability are not as far-fetched as they might have appeared a decade ago. The staggering racial, political and economic fractures running through American society are all but resolved and what seemed a frightening yet brief chapter in modern American history might soon turn out to have been merely a painful prelude to a much more pernicious era. As Karl Marx teaches, history always repeats itself, first as tragedy and second as farce.

Hard Truths

The numerous benefits a European “third way” might hold, however, should not make the EU oblivious of some hard realities inherent to its very structure and nature. That it might be a wise choice for the continent to find its own way given the present circumstances doesn’t mean that it should consider this an expression of a position of strength and thus commit the gravest sin an entity, national or supranational, can commit in the business of international politics: hubris.

The need for a more nuanced and fluid policy is as much a creative solution as a sheer necessity. Due to the political and legal framework within which they operate, EU institutions are intrinsically unable to express a coherent strategy and act accordingly. While highly effective on other issues, the supranational institutions, i.e. Commission and Parliament, have little to no maneuvering space with regard to foreign policy. It is no coincidence that the CFSP (Common Foreign and Security Policy) belongs to the least developed areas of European Integration, with the single member states still wielding the largest influence over FP decisions, exerted within the European Council as well as the Council of the European Union.

The “technical” difficulties of implementing a comprehensive China strategy go hand-in-hand with the reality on the ground. The other hard truth is that the single positions of the various EU member states on China are extremely heterogeneous, leaving the idea of a coherent EU policy towards Beijing a mere chimera. As pointed out in a paper published by the Italian Institute for International Affairs, “a united stance is often undermined by EU member states, which continue to compete against each other in search of commercial advantages in the Chinese market as well as to attract Chinese investment into their territories.”

A brilliant example of this fragmentation is the existence of separate frameworks as the China–Central and Eastern European Countries (China–CEEC) group, founded in Budapest in 2012 and aimed at promoting Beijing´s Belt and Road Initiative. Hungary for instance, has become known as China’s closest ally within the EU, recently making headlines for a generous donation of public land by the Hungarian Government to Fudan University (Shanghai), which is planning on opening a campus in Budapest. Amongst southern European countries, Greece and Italy stand out for their, according to many, controversial attitudes towards the Red Dragon. Athens has been heavily involved in the BRI’s European ramifications, welcoming a large number of Chinese investments and allowing the takeover of the Piraeus Port. Italy on the other hand, took a stunningly big leap towards Beijing by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the BRI in 2019. And although the new Government presided by the highly esteemed former ECB President Mario Draghi has favored a much harsher stance, the agreement hasn’t been revoked yet. Furthermore, Spain is torn between its business community eager to expand its cooperation with China and concerns over Beijing´s assertiveness, while Poland has grown wary of the actual benefits of opening up to the Asian superpower. Germany on the contrary, continues to be accused of being “too soft” on China due to the German Industry’s large investments in the People’s Republic and the huge trade volume between the two countries.   

This highly fragmented landscape underscores once again how the expectations about a cohesive China strategy are being held back by profound disagreements unlikely to be resolved just through a joint declaration or a new strategic outlook, like the one published in 2019. Moreover, such a degree of heterogeneity would make it also incredibly difficult for the EU to get on board with the American strategy. And as fervently as some politicians wish to create a united front with the United States, the EU must first learn to deal with what it has and what´s available. There are still too many radical institutional and political changes to be made before being able to speak with one voice and, if needed, align with Washington’s policy.

Against this backdrop, the EU should undoubtedly retain at least some degree of internal coordination, but otherwise promote a hybrid approach and thus draw strength from a position of apparent weakness. By keeping several bilateral channels open, the chances of securing a stable relationship with Beijing over time are much higher than by becoming a mere executor of a strategy conceived in Washington that might fail to fully take into account the manifold nature of EU-China relations. Confronted with a major power pursuing a twofold strategy itself in an ever changing international arena, the most effective and fruitful policy might indeed be one of high adaptability and flexibility.

The Best of Two Worlds

It is often said that the EU tries to get the “best of two worlds” in its relations with major powers. While this notion usually carries a negative connotation, according to many a sign of incoherence and double-standards, it perfectly indicates the kind of path Europe should pursue in its future dealings with China and the United States. Precluding itself from reaping the immediate and long-term benefits of enhanced cooperation with Beijing out of blind allegiance to a stubborn and confrontational course would run counter to the EU’s economic and political interests. The recent years have offered several examples of fruitful involvement in Chinese initiatives. As already mentioned, the Belt and Road Initiative, although not without certain shady features, has brought significant benefits to various European countries. Furthermore, initiatives like the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank), an unmistakably Chinese-dominated financial institution dreaded by the US, have allowed European countries to become more involved in the financing of infrastructure projects across Eurasia and do this not as mere executors of Beijing´s orders, but as partners with extensive shares and voting rights. At the same time, the EU should not hesitate to also get on board with Initiatives like the B3W (Build Back Better World Partnership), championed by the Biden Administration at the recent G7 summit, or future frameworks aligning with its core interests. While such an approach might be seen as unfair or incoherent, it stands exactly for what the EU is about and does best: balancing many poles at once. And it should keep going down this path. Should this approach be interpreted, especially in Washington, as an attempt to abandon the “Western liberal order” or even the transatlantic alliance? Absolutely not! While engaging with both sides equally and on a case-to-case basis, European countries should not have any doubts about where they stand in terms of values and polity. In other words, the tenets of liberal democracy which have served the EU so well since its foundation, should continue to be the non plus ultra line, regardless of who sits at the other end of the negotiating table. On the other hand, the fear of an obscure plan by the leadership in Beijing to impose a Chinese-like model on consolidated political systems, with a few exceptions, like the European ones, should by now have lost its raison d’être.

The timeliness and urgency of all these challenges make them cogent enough for the EU to stick to a path featuring a high degree of adaptability and responsiveness. Only through a fluid and pragmatic approach will Europe be able to find its own way and avoid being caught in the middle, ultimately risking becoming (again) the victim and main stage of renewed great power competition. Against all odds, the old continent might still have what it takes. 

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By Corrado Chirico

Corrado Chirico is a German-Italian graduate student at the Free University Berlin, Humboldt University and University of Potsdam. He is currently pursuing a joint Master´s degree in International Relations and his focus lies in Transatlantic Affairs, US-China relations and Chinese Foreign Policy.

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