Modern-day EU-China relations may be uncertain, but this only follows a long history of shaky relations between Brussels and Beijing. First established in 1975, a formal relationship between the People’s Republic of China and the European Union began with the goal of promoting “peace, prosperity, sustainable development, and people-to-people exchanges." Not long after, an EU delegation for maintaining relations with the PRC was established in 1979, after the first direct European elections. Prior to the establishment of the EU, various European states had shifting relations with China dating back to both the Ming and Qing dynasties in the late 1800s. Many have also not forgotten the Opium Wars of the 1800s, which was fought between China and European imperialist powers, and continues to shape China’s national memory to this day.
During the 1990s, despite imposing an arms embargo on China for the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 - an embargo that is in place to this day - continuous frequent travel between European citizens and Chinese businessmen led to an increase in Europe’s interest in China. According to The Diplomat, then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s strategy was to stand firm against the EU’s demands on China and rely on the fact that their business interests in the Chinese economy would force them to improve relations. This strategy proved highly successful. In fact, according to Robert Sutter, in his 2008 book Chinese Foreign Relations, “EU-Chinese trade increased faster than the Chinese economy itself, tripling in ten years from US$14.3 billion in 1985 to US$45.6 billion in 1994.” In the mid-2000s, the EU became China’s biggest trading partner and remains so to this day. The European Commission reports that China and Europe trade on average over a billion euros a day, with the EU importing everything from industrial machinery to consumer footwear (which amounted to over 300 billion euros in 2019 alone).
As economic cooperation grew, relations in the political and security spheres were taking a different turn. Conflict existed on various political issues such as NATO intervention in Kosovo, the U.S.-backed, EU-imposed arms embargo on China, and roadblocks preventing China from joining the World Trade Organization. All this - which is really just the tip of the iceberg - goes to show that the modern-day EU-China relationship is built on a shaky foundation, riddled with conflicting concerns that are not likely to be resolved easily.
For China, support from the EU, with its considerable economic heft, can be the deciding vote in many critical moves made in their interest that may be opposed by the United States. For the EU, the Chinese economy presents both opportunity and dependence. While US rhetoric about China has emphasized terms like “rival” and has even been openly hostile, the European Union has, while expressing concern about China’s human rights violations, been largely tamer. In March 2019, the European Commission published a document highlighting a sharper approach to their relationship with China, and yet, even in this document, China is referred to as a “negotiating partner” and “cooperation partner”. In this same document, one of the stated objectives is that “the EU should deepen its engagement with China to promote common interests at a global level”.
The fact is that the U.S. is far more independent of China than the EU is or can be in the near future. Whereas both the U.S. and China are interested in pulling the EU deeper into their spheres of influence, for the EU, the priority is to stay on good terms with both - as they represent the EU’s largest and second-largest trading partner, respectively. This is further underscored by the fact that while the United States’ superpower focus on geopolitics means it’s conflict with China is unavoidable, Europe lacks that same focus. For the member states of the European Union, China represents, above all, economic opportunity, and so, they are less likely to support U.S. military activity against the PRC.
In recent years, concern has risen about the need to bring some balance into the EU’s relationship with China. According to Thomas Wright, writing for the Brookings Institute, this is spurred on by China’s refusal to “end practices of intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers, its failure to enhance market openness for European companies, its use of coercive economic tools and political influence in Europe, and its illiberalism on the world stage”. This transformation in the EU-China relationship has only been accelerated by the global coronavirus pandemic. The financial impact of the pandemic has raised the alarm about the extent of the EU’s economic dependence on China, especially given that the relationship does not seem to be equally reciprocated, for example, in terms of market openness.
Other issues leading to a souring of the relationship with China reflect internal discord amongst EU member states. For example, Bulgaria, Poland and Italy receive a fraction of the Chinese investment flowing into Europe, although they too have signed various cooperation agreements. These concerns of unequal distribution of the benefits of an alliance with China showcase disparity amongst the European states. Germany and France’s perceived dominance of the relationship is felt acutely. A September 2020 policy brief by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) claims, “Although all member states… express a desire for the EU to become more ambitious and assertive in its China policy, they are sometimes wary of one another’s reasons for doing so. For example, many member states worry that France treats the EU as merely a vehicle for its own geopolitical power and that Germany largely shapes China’s policy according to national economic interests.”
Another point of contention is that the EU is not assertive enough in its relationship with China - by not demanding a level playing field, the EU as a whole is holding its smaller member states back from the gains they could achieve through the quickly-recovering post-pandemic Chinese economy. Janka Oertel, Senior Policy Fellow for the ECFR, reports that EU “Member states recognise that China is increasingly adept at dominating bilateral relationships with them, and ever brasher in its violations of human rights and international commitments in places such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong. They acknowledge that this partly reflects the failure of European efforts to stand up to Beijing politically – and that only a coherent EU policy framework and coordinated action could halt or reverse these trends.”
So what happens moving forward? It is clear that the EU-China relationship is made up of conflicting sentiments and concerns - not the least amongst EU member states. While the EU’s general sentiment towards China continues to sour, and concerns about angering the U.S. by not openly opposing China’s rise, it is clear that the EU needs to take a few critical steps. Firstly, divisions amongst member states need to be resolved if the EU wants any hope of being able to come to a negotiation table with China with any success.
The perceived German and French dominance of the relationship needs to come to an end, perhaps by enforcing more participatory measures for other member states. In order to demand concessions from China, the EU needs to present a united front. Along with this, since it is clear that the EU’s economic interest in China is not likely to decrease any time soon, China will likely have to create more of a level playing field for European companies in the Chinese market. The EU also needs to decide its list of priorities - pushing back on China on the topics of human rights, climate change, geopolitics, economic concessions, etc. is not likely to yield positive results as efforts and attention are split between widely differing issues. Until then, it will be relatively simple for China to dismiss these concerns as it is clear it has the upper hand in the current relationship.