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Foreign Policy

The Future of Sino-European Relations Can be Bright, but Key Challenges Remain.

Apr 24, 2023
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to Beijing saw the French politician and Chinese President Xi Jinping agree upon a sweeping 51-point agreement on Sino-French collaboration. Many view the trip as cementing the recent trend of de-thawing in relations between Europe and China, subsequent to the country’s reopening in COVID-19 restrictions and softening reorientation in diplomatic rhetoric in Q1 this year. 

At face value, the narrative that Europe is inclined towards a ‘strategically autonomous’ position and will refrain from taking sides between a hypothetical Sino-American rivalry, seems partially convincing. After all, with the substantial economic intertwinement between China and the EU (EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell noted in a recent blog post that 20% of the EU’s imports are from China, further affirming his colleague Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s observations that decoupling from China is not a viable option), it is understandable to think that European economies would prefer not to take sides between the two great powers. 

Indeed, three incidental forces amplify the verdict that Sino-European relations will be on the mend as China aims to prioritise economic rejuvenation as its top policy objective for 2023. 

The first, is the precipitously clear stalemate that has formed over the war in Ukraine - neither Ukraine nor Russia has managed to gain a clear upper hand (despite the intense crossfires near Bakhmut), and there are grounds to think that a protracted, ‘frozen’ conflict would be likely to last over the next year or so; both Brussels and Beijing have - to varying degrees - an interest in the non-escalation and eventual resolution to the crisis. Beijing does not stand to gain from nuclear or large-scale militarisation over vast swathes of Ukraine and Russia, which may pose undue volatility and shocks to global food supply chains. Brussels is in search of an actor acceptable to Russia that can viably put pressure on the Kremlin to come to its senses; turning to Washington seems to be a non-starter here. An improvement in Sino-European relations is thus key in possibly (though not necessarily) unlocking a tenable peace-brokering process. 

The second, is that both China and the EU are looking for substantial remedies to their domestic economic concerns. Beijing is wary of the possibility of large firms reshoring and pivoting away from China by leading European multi-national corporations - such a move, which had been floated amongst many firms in the aftermath of the pandemic, would weaken significantly the country’s position of influence in relation within global supply chains at large. Similarly, EU states - especially large economies with substantial energy demands and partial dependence upon Russia - are grasping for any and all economic support that could ameliorate the inflationary crisis that is taking its toll on their citizens. In face of such concerns, the more trade between the EU and China, especially in non-sensitive sectors, the merrier. 

Finally, as articulated aptly by EU Council President Charles Michel, there is increasing receptiveness towards Macron’s articulated vision of ‘strategic autonomy’ amongst select quarters of EU states - namely, countries with long-standing economic ties with both China and the U.S., and for whom active embroilment in a proxy conflict abroad appears to be neither advantageous towards domestic needs and interests, nor particularly feasible. A growing sense of uneasiness over the trajectory of the war in Ukraine, as well as grumblings towards America over the controversial Inflation Reduction Act, has indubitably amplified concerns in the political establishment that the US is treating the EU as merely a subsidiary and given backer on its quest to isolate and contain China’s global influence. 

These three forces would point to a brighter Sino-European relationship - at least, one that is built upon firmer, more dynamically strategic, and pragmatically interest-driven grounds. China and the EU, per this vision, can expect an increase in financial, cultural, and technological (sans 5G) collaboration and synergies. 

Yet it would be naïve to thus conclude that all is well. There remain key challenges that must be tackled swiftly in order for trust to be genuinely repaired between key policymakers and decision-makers across European countries, and China. 

The first obstacle is the pervasive mistrust towards China amongst populations of select European states. Attitudes amongst Western and Central European governments and publics alike towards China have hardened considerably throughout the pandemic, culminating in a stalemate over the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), as well as increasingly heated rhetorical clashes between Chinese and European diplomats between 2020 and 2022. Beijing viewed its representatives’ vocalising of concerns as standing by their country’s core national interests, whilst their European counterparts cited such hawkishness as signs of bellicosity and untrustworthiness. It is relatively easy to drive forward more trade deals - which may benefit select audiences, and unevenly so. It is much harder for China to truly win back the hearts and minds of European audiences that have grown wary of its presence. 

The second obstacle concerns the heterogeneity of Europe. Beijing has come to recognise that Europe is certainly no monolith, and that individual nations have their own visions and conceptions of what their foreign policies and relations with both Beijing and Washington ought to look like. That much is clear, from how Beijing has thrived in conducting successful diplomatic talks with Paris, Madrid, and Berlin over the past six months. 

Yet such heterogeneity could also be deceiving. Smaller and medium European states are much more likely to behave and voice collectively as a bloc, for they are cognizant of the possible downsides to operating in a discordant and isolated manner. Central and Eastern European states - once reliable partners that China could turn to within the EU at large - have grown increasingly reserved towards Beijing, as the war in Ukraine continues. Thus, it is vital that Beijing seeks to actively assuage their worries, through advancing with sincerity and efficacy their vision of peace over Ukraine. 

Potential escalation in the war, which cannot be ruled out, would apply further strain on the Sino-European relationship. With that said, should China succeed in its quest of presenting a mutually agreeable solution to the ongoing war, this certainly would spell great news for its relationship with Europe, as European states come to acknowledge the potency and value in Beijing’s ‘third path’ diplomacy. Until then, however, the state of Sino-European relations remains in flux and in the air.  

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