China’s Premier Li Qiang visited Europe at a time of global heightened tension, as countries grapple with balancing protectionism and domestic technological advancements. Trade and geopolitical matters took center stage during his discussions, with a focus on Germany for trade-related issues and France for broader geopolitical concerns. By prioritizing these nations, China hopes to effectively establish its European clout.
1. Decoding China’s European Chessboard
From the perspective of Chinese diplomacy, Europe in 2023 can be metaphorically described as a two-headed hydra, with Germany and France acting as the prominent heads. Germany stands out due to its considerable trade reliance on Beijing, emphasizing the economic aspect. Meanwhile, France garners admiration for a resolute political stance, forward-thinking approach, and impartiality amid U.S.-China tensions. The absence of stops in certain countries - Li did not visit Italy or Spain - show where China’s priorities lie in its foreign outreach strategy.
The visit to Berlin marked the 7th Sino-German government consultation. Its significance was highlighted by China retaining its position as Germany’s top trading partner for a seventh consecutive year. Despite Scholz’s statement in November 2022 (“our approach to China must change”), the meeting underscored the strong economic ties between both sides. Notably, imports from China surged by 33%, amounting to 191 billion euros, while German exports to China experienced a 3% growth, reaching 107 billion euros. China holds substantial influence in key sectors of the German economy, particularly in energy transition, automobile manufacturing and industrial machinery.
However, prior to the meeting, Germany’s government criticized China in their newly released National Security Strategy, expressing concerns about alleged efforts to reshape the global order, assertive regional stance, and use of economic influence for political goals. The strategy also accused “foreign intelligence services” of making substantial investments “in order to spy in Germany.” During his speech, Premier Li avoided addressing specific concerns raised by Germany's awkward balancing act between trade relationships and distancing from Beijing. Instead, he emphasized China’s goal of restoring foreign business confidence and promoting cooperation. To navigate the usual contradiction between European public discourse and trade certainties and realpolitik, Li strategically focused on less contentious issues in bilateral relations, such as trade, climate change, and green technology.
China recognizes the economic importance of being the EU's largest trading partner as a powerful diplomatic tool. Simultaneously, Scholz prioritizes German self-interest without considering a broader EU perspective. With Merkel’s departure, Germany’s lack of a clear vision for Europe is becoming evident, and China seems to be keenly aware of this. As a result, China’s subsequent visit to Paris acknowledges France’s potential influence and vital role in shaping the future of the continent.
China is clearly more comfortable engaging in discussions about geopolitics with France. The visit to Paris focused on participation in the “New Global Financing Pact,” co-organized by India and Barbados, which brought together numerous African leaders along with von der Leyen, Lula, Ramaphosa, Scholz, and Yellen. The summit aimed to reconsider the West’s relationship with developing nations. Concrete outcomes and the specific roles of each participant are yet to be determined. The mid-term effects remain uncertain, and early indications suggest a limited impact. However, for President Macron, recognized once again as Europe’s most innovative geopolitical leader, such details are less relevant. As an ‘alchemist of global reinvention,’ Macron is involved in several diplomatic fronts: has recently launched the European Political Community, has expressed a desire to attend the next BRICS summit as well as the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.
France would benefit from a shift towards a multipolar world where Europe, as a “third superpower,” counterbalances the U.S. and China while remaining free from external influence. And China recognizes France’s influential position, as their strategic interests align in certain areas. Specifically, China supports the EU’s concept of strategic sovereignty, which is championed by Macron. France has consistently advocated for Europe to establish itself as an independent power. This highlights the divergent approaches of Macron, who advocates for a regular engagement with China, and Von der Leyen, who prioritizes strategies aligned with Washington’s agenda. China values France’s prioritization of national interests over ideology.
In fact, Macron has always focused on strengthening and reforming the bloc. In September 2017, he delivered a speech at Sorbonne outlining his vision for a more integrated EU. In March 2019, he called for an aspiring “European renaissance” and greater solidarity among member states. He has often encouraged a common defense strategy and greater cooperation on immigration policy. He famously declared NATO was suffering “brain death” during Trump’s presidency. Overall, Macron has been a vocal advocate for a more cohesive and robust EU, particularly in response to the challenges posed by Brexit and rising populism in member states.
Le président de la République sets him apart from the stagnant mindset that often dominates in Brussels, creating some apprehension among Eurocrats. At a time when the EU faces internal power struggles among its three main leaders (Von der Leyen, Michel and Borrell) and a potential return of Germany’s dominance seems unlikely, France’s international leadership shines brighter than ever.
2. Li’s Visit Coincides with Key EU Events on China
Li’s visit occurred amidst a series of noteworthy events that took place in the weeks leading up to and following his trip. The most significant diplomatic milestone was U.S. Secretary of State Blinken’s visit to China, where he met with both President Xi and the Premier, marking the first such visit in five years.
Meanwhile, on June 20, 2023, the EU introduced the European Economic Security Strategy, a framework aimed at addressing shared economic security risks. The strategy prioritizes protection and outlines key measures, including the use of existing tools like trade defense, foreign subsidies, 5G/6G security, FDI screening, export controls, and a new instrument to counter economic coercion. Member states are expected to formulate a proposal developing those measures – with clear implications for China - by the end of 2023.
Furthermore, a European Council summit was held on June 29-30, where China was a topic of discussion. Influential member states advocated for a conciliatory approach, motivated by their aim to preserve positive relations and avoid potential friction. The debate encompassed two key dimensions: economy and defense. Economically, the EU expressed its intention to ensure “a level playing field” with balanced and mutually beneficial trade and economic relationships, while “de-risking” in order to reduce critical dependencies and vulnerabilities in supply chains, and diversifying. The military consensus internally centers on opposing coercion and exerting influence. The focus lies on urging Russia to end its “war of aggression” and expressing concerns vis-à-vis “growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait.” In a similar vein, Macron seized the opportunity to clarify his stance in favor of preserving the status quo, stating he would be against any hostility. The EU tone on China would only escalate if it were to offer military assistance to Russia.
3. Navigating the Path Ahead
China’s efforts on reviving face-to-face dialogue and diplomatic engagement in Europe prioritize specific actors: Germany, to ensure trade dependency growth; and France, identified as the pivotal player within the EU for revitalizing Sino-European relations. However, challenges persist in the relationship. Despite publicly endorsing a more autonomous Europe, Beijing has not taken substantive measures to advance this objective in recent times.
Simultaneously, the EU is currently reassessing its China policy, with the goal of reducing supply chain risks while preserving a degree of independence from Washington’s China strategy. However, China has criticized the EU’s de-risking endeavors, emphasizing the mutual interdependence between the two entities. Li stated, “dependency is a must, and is mutual. You depend on me, and I depend on you.” Nevertheless, China also implements its own de-risking measures. Despite ongoing efforts, EU-China relations continue to face strain, prompting the EU to strengthen its trade defense mechanisms.
The European Economic Security Strategy seems to leave behind the CAI. Although certain member states, such as France and Germany, advocate for maintaining economic engagement with China, progress on a comprehensive EU-China agenda as a whole remains narrow. Ongoing dialogues, including meetings with business representatives and potential future trade agreements, are part of the work, but significant far-sighted advancements have yet to be achieved. The intricate dynamics between the EU and China underscore the importance of continuously assessing and readjusting their relationship.