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Foreign Policy

EU’s “De-Risking” Trap

Jan 17, 2024
  • Dong Yifan

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Over the past year, relations between China and the European Union have stabilized thanks to increasing interactions in the post-pandemic era. As the two sides reach an important landmark — the 20th anniversary of the China-EU Strategic Partnership — bilateral ties have shown good momentum toward consolidation and development.

At the end of 2022, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and European Council President Charles Michel each visited China, marking the beginning of a series of high-level exchanges between Chinese and European leaders. The 24th China-EU Summit in December represented the successful conclusion of China-EU interactions for 2023, and the two sides are exploring proper ways to engage with each other against a background of evolving circumstances and mutual perceptions, and to make adjustments and alignments for dealing with differences and pursuing cooperation.

In contrast to China’s goodwill and sincerity in strengthening cooperation with the EU, the European side intends to shape China-EU relations by promoting the so-called de-risking narrative. In early 2023, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen dished out the concept of “de-risking” during a speech at the World Economic Forum and in other speeches on China policy. Since then, the EU’s policy toward China has been moving in that direction.

In the EU’s view, de-risking includes not only reducing economic risks stemming from dependence in the high-tech field but also applies to the diplomatic and political fields. De-risking also refers to enhanced coordination with China on the Ukraine crisis; cooperation on climate change and regional hot spot issues; and managing differences in economy, trade, investment and industrial supply chains to avoid friction.

From China’s point of view, peddling de-risking, both in concept and practice, is fraught with danger. It will not only undermine trade as the “ballast” of China-EU economic ties over the past 50 years but will also plunge the two into an abyss of decoupling and severed chains, thus generating a negative domino effect in the geopolitical arena. This would only further aggravate the trend of fragmentation and camp-based confrontation in global markets and supply chains, while undercutting cooperative innovation.

This year, while dialogue between China and Europe has been significantly enhanced, some new issues and challenges have also emerged. After China’s two sessions in 2023, European leaders visited the country in close succession — including Spanish Prime Minister Alexis Sanchez, French President Emmanuel Macron and the European Commission’s Von der Leyen. This renewed wave of diplomatic interaction between China and Europe — as well as President Macron’s active support of strategic autonomy for the EU — were commended by China, as was his commitment to pragmatic cooperation and promoting mutual understanding between his country and China.

In June, Premier Li Qiang visited Germany and France, presided over the 7th intergovernmental consultations and attended the New Global Compact Summit hosted by France. Li’s trips to Europe — his first foreign visits after assuming office — reflects the great importance the Chinese government attaches to China-EU relations, and demonstrates the willingness of China and the EU to deepen their cooperation on climate change and the financing of development.

In December, the 24th China-EU Summit was resumed in the form of an in-person meeting in Beijing. Later, Von der Leyen and Michel both visited China, a sign that head-of-state diplomacy had overcome the constraints of the pandemic era and brought China-EU relations to a positive place in 2023.

However, the EU’s practices that promote de-risking have had a negative impact on normal China-EU cooperation, such as the launching of an investigation into China’s electric cars in October — a political maneuver informed by the de-risking narrative. It is fundamentally protectionist in nature but is disguised as “fair trade.” It has only heightened the uncertainties in normal China-EU trade and green cooperation.

In the face of increasing differences between China and the EU, China has taken the initiative to address the risk of instability in relations through a responsible approach:

First, China has held high the banner of cooperation. Against the backdrop of the EU’s three-way stance on China and the emphasis on China as a systemic rival and competitor, China has worked continuously to shore up confidence, mutual trust and win-win cooperation. It is committed to treating the EU as a key partner in economic and trade cooperation, a priority partner in scientific and technological cooperation and a credible partner in industrial supply chain cooperation.

Second, China has shown goodwill in strengthening exchanges in various fields. Since the beginning of this year, China and the EU have set up new dialogues or resumed previous ones at high levels in many fields. The two sides found success in the High-Level Strategic Dialogue, the High-Level Economic and Trade Dialogue, the High-Level Environment and Climate Dialogue and the High-Level Dialogue on Ocean Affairs.

There were also a series of high-level visits to China, including that of Josep Borrell, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy; Valdis Dombrovskis, executive vice president of the European Commission; and Thierry Breton, EU commissioner for the internal market.

China and France held the sixth meeting of the people-to-people exchange mechanism, adding to the momentum of establishing communication channels, managing differences and exploring cooperation in various fields. At the same time, China and the EU both attach great importance to people-to-people exchanges and affirm the significance of this as the cornerstone of engagement.   

The announcement of China's unilateral visa-free entry policy for France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia has been highly praised by the European side. France also offers five-year multiple-entry visas to Chinese students studying in France.

Third, China has strengthened coordination with the EU on key issues. On the Ukraine crisis, China has adhered to objective and fair security concepts as enshrined in the Global Security Initiative Concept Paper and its own Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukrainian Crisis. It has repeatedly told the European side of its stance on providing weapons to any party to the conflict — it doesn’t — and has reiterated that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought.” On the Israel-Palestinian issue, China and the EU have coordinated their policies and have enhanced their consensus on humanitarian support, extending the cease-fire and promoting the two-state solution.

Looking ahead into the new year, China and Europe will understand each other’s policy intentions better and hence more tactfully control differences and avoid crossing each other’s red lines and aggravating areas of sensitivity. The 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and France, the Paris Olympics and other events will offer opportunities for the two sides to strengthen high-level exchanges, deepen communication and strengthen mutual trust.

The EU has also sent messages aimed at preventing miscalculation or misperception on both sides. For instance, EU leaders have repeatedly stressed the difference between de-risking and decoupling, and that it’s not aimed at China. China also plays a vital role in maintaining the stability and security of industrial supply chains and addressing issues related to climate change, artificial intelligence and hot spots.     

However, some trends set in motion by the European side may bring unintended risks to China-EU relations, including the complexity of the European Parliament’s attitude toward China after parliamentary elections and the EU’s impulse to interfere in sensitive issues related to Hong Kong, the South China Sea, Tibet and Taiwan. Other areas include the investigation of electric vehicles from China, the revival of the China-EU investment agreement, the U.S. presidential election’s implications for relations between China, the United States and Europe.

Both China and Europe are looking forward to bringing more stability to China-EU relations in a way that is mutually acceptable. But transcending the European-style de-risking narrative and framework will test the strategic definitions and political wisdom of both sides.

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