The year 2022 has been one of difficulties and setbacks for China-EU relations. However, toward the end of the year, face-to-face exchanges and interactions at high levels were resumed and the atmosphere was improved. Both sides still need to make continuous efforts to stop any negative trends and stabilize their ties.
Because of various factors, Europe’s China policy has been troubled in the past year, with increased pan-political and pan-security tendencies. Sino-European relations have consequently been under great pressure. The European trichotomy of China being a partner, a competitor and a systemic adversary at the same time — as described three years ago — has now been solidified in all policies toward China. The COVID-19 pandemic severely limited exchanges at all levels, leading to increased mutual trust deficits.
Moreover, the Biden administration in the United States has spared no effort in pushing Europe to side with the U.S. and be tough to China. Additionally, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has fueled negative views of China in Europe, with the EU and some countries, such as Germany, concerned about over-dependence on the Chinese market and raw materials. Rhetoric about decoupling and reducing dependence on China can be heard all the time.
Because of differences with China over the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, called the online China-EU summit a “dialogue of the deaf.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has repeatedly said that Europe cannot rely on Chinese rare earth resources as it does on Russian energy. Obviously, current China-EU relations are influenced by external factors.
Another feature of the current China-EU relationship is that, despite serious differences, the two sides mutually recognize their counterpart’s importance and strive to maintain dialogue and contact. The EU side has expressed its desire to keep the door to engagement open with China and identified areas of collaboration — on climate change, biodiversity, the expanding food crisis in Africa and regional crises such as Afghanistan, for example.
Recently, European countries and EU leaders have sent many signals regarding cooperation with China. This undoubtedly has something to do with the new situation and considerations in Europe.
First, with an increased risk of the Russia-Ukraine military conflict being protracted and escalated, Europe is eager for China to play a role. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to China in early November marked the start of intensive high-level interactions between China and Europe, including meetings between President Xi Jinping and the leaders of France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain during the G20 summit, and a visit to China by Charles Michel, president of the European Council, in early December. In all those meetings, European leaders put the settlement of the Russia-Ukraine problem high on their agendas.
Second, as energy prices have soared since the outbreak of the conflict, the cost of living and production have risen sharply in Europe. The Economist noted that “every single warning light is flashing red” for the European economy. The EU, the eurozone and most EU member states are expected to fall into recession in the fourth quarter of 2022, with continued economic contraction in the first quarter of 2023, according to a European Commission forecast. As the energy shortage causes serious economic and social problems, European countries hope to strengthen cooperation with China and jointly protect the stability and security of industrial and supply chains.
Before his visit to China, Chancellor Scholz openly and explicitly supported globalization and opposed decoupling with China. Valdis Dombrovskis, executive vice-president of the European Commission, ruled out decoupling with China as an option for European companies. As Michel put it at the G20 summit in Bali, “The EU needs to rebalance ties with China.”
Finally, with the passage of the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, Europe has begun to change its views of the American position and proposed that Europe needs its own China policy. In an interview with La Vanguardia Española and other European media on Dec. 3, Michel revealed the course of Europe’s changing attitude toward the U.S. He first talked about the very good coordination with the U.S. when the conflict initially broke out, which helped to strengthen the EU-U.S. relationship. But when it comes to the impacts of the war, the U.S. cares only for itself and does not cooperate or coordinate with the EU. While European people and big businesses pay a huge price in the energy crisis, energy exporters including the U.S. are making a lot of money. According to Michel, Europe could identify with the objectives of the Inflation Reduction Act but hopes to see cooperation and coordination from the United States on economic policies.
Speaking of the China policy, Michel pointed out that while Europe can no longer be naive about China, the EU must consider its own interests and the state of its industrial development. “We cannot defend our own interests if we allow others to decide for us how to interact with China,” he said.
Looking forward, the future of China-EU relations will depend on how Europe balances cooperation with competition in the future. Generally speaking, although Europe will not change its trichotomy view of China, relations between the two sides are likely to stabilize as they engage in effective cooperation in areas of shared interest.
In addition, it is worth noting that although the decoupling argument has lost its market in many European countries after heated discussion, some countries are indeed considering reducing their economic dependence on China and trying to diversify their industrial chains. Germany’s new China policy document coming out next year is likely to reflect that position.
Finally, if the EU and its member states can still have some autonomy in their China policies, the China-U.S.-EU triangle will certainly gain greater influence in the rapidly changing international landscape.