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Foreign Policy

Europe’s Role in China-U.S. Relations

May 06, 2022
  • Sun Chenghao

    Assistant Research Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

After the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, many scholars have discussed Europe’s changing perception of China. In European countries and the United States alike, the trend of labeling China as a systemic rival or strategic competitor has become obvious. The conflict has further strengthened this perception.

What, if anything, has changed in the past two years?

Some differences over China have become apparent, but while Europe emphasizes strategic autonomy, that goal is a long-term proposition. In the short term, Europe is increasingly aligning as a partner in the U.S. strategy to compete with major powers.

The Biden administration has set up the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council (TTC), inherited the U.S.-EU dialogue on China, exerted pressure on China during the Russia-Ukraine crisis and even imposed sanctions against China with Europe.

If China’s perception of Europe worsens and it comes to see Europe as a partner of the U.S. in competition with China, who will benefit? The answer is neither China nor Europe.

Even under such circumstances, however, China has maintained a positive attitude toward Europe and hopes to further develop relations. A good example is found in a comparison of the China-U.S. summit with the China-EU summit. The differences are clear. China emphasizes the need for the U.S. to correct mistakes and adjust its policy on current problems — which should be the basis for bilateral cooperation. As for Europe, China puts more emphasis on consensus and cooperation for the future. We still have strong confidence that China and Europe can work together.

If European and American policies toward China gradually converge, however, the China-Europe relationship will face serious challenges. China might come to feel that Europe’s talk of strategic autonomy is empty, at least when it comes to matter involving China.

Europe’s China policy should not be stuck in the Russia-Ukraine crisis but should be viewed from the perspective of overall China-Europe relations. Europe should recognize the value of strategic autonomy. It has long stressed that closer relations with the U.S. does not mean confrontation with China. Recent events only reveal an inevitable choice in the current Russia-Ukraine crisis.

But Europe’s China policy does not seem to bear that out.

China supports Europe’s strategic autonomy, but we are not saying this to make Europe happy. It is because European strategic autonomy is in China’s interest. China has always advocated that the world should be multi-polar, and we believe that Europe should play an important role in that world. But if Europe increasingly becomes part of a competitive alliance with the United States, European relations with China might face unnecessary trouble.

For current China-Europe relations, the Russia-Ukraine crisis presents a huge challenge, of course. Europe is a direct victim of the conflict, and China is trying to play a constructive role. But what we have done so far probably does not meet Europe’s expectations, and it’s not expected that China and Europe will completely understand each other anytime soon.

At the same time, Europe should not let the Russia-Ukraine conflict define its relations with China. China is not part of the problem. The conflict itself is extremely complex, involving geopolitics, economic sanctions and the future direction of globalization.

From the Chinese perspective, how the Ukraine conflict affects China-EU relations is more a matter of choice than a straightforward result. We have two choices: either treat it as a justification or pretext for rivalry, or keep China-Europe relations stable in difficult and challenging times to provide a stabilizing influence for world peace and development.

Europe should not let the Russia-Ukraine crisis affect China-Europe cooperation in other fields. To achieve strategic autonomy, it’s better for Europe to make friends around the world and promote economic globalization in the wake of the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

It is not in Europe’s interest to see a serious pushback of globalization — a return to “hard power” competition in which countries no longer trust each other or work within existing international rules. It will be more difficult for Europe to live in such a world.

Even in the context of the crisis, people believe that Europe supports multilateralism and needs more countries to participate in the process of global governance and economic globalization. Europe, however, needs to ponder whether its future multilateralism should exclude Russia. If the number of participants in economic globalization are reduced because of geopolitics and ideology, it will not only affect China-EU relations but also weaken Europe’s “normative power,” making it increasingly a follower of U.S. policy instead of a pole of the world.

Europe should therefore continue its flexible role between China and the U.S., promoting economic globalization with more participants, which is in its best interest, rather than kicking certain countries out of the international system and causing global fragmentation. Europe is in the most comfortable strategic position in the trilateral relationship with China and the U.S., and it should make the most of this position.

For example, some dialogue and mechanisms established by Europe and the U.S. can also be established with China. In particular, China and the EU should establish more communication channels on trade, technology, supply chains and regional security in the Asia-Pacific to facilitate positive policy interactions between the two sides and reduce the possible risks of misunderstanding.

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