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Ukraine and the China-EU Summit

Apr 29, 2022
  • Zhang Bei

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institute of International Studies

A readout from the Chinese Foreign Ministry about the China-EU summit in April said the country views its relations with Europe from a long-term and strategic perspective and that relations are vital for world peace, stability and development. It was not only a restatement of the continuity of Chinese policy toward Europe but also recognized the increasing importance of relations in a world beset by uncertainties.

The European side had cooler tones after the summit. Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, referred to the summit as a “dialogue of the deaf,” and some European Union officials were quoted as saying the summit was about “sending warnings to China” by letting it know that relations would worsen if it “mishandled” the Ukraine situation.

These statements suggest that the EU has a misguided understanding about dialogue in diplomacy. A one-way message is a failed communication; dialogue has to be two-way. Therefore, it is not only about Europe sending a message and letting China know, but also about Europe’s open-mindedness to China’s position and considerations.

Moreover, these statements highlighted, from the European perspective, the risks in the EU’s China policy in light of the Ukraine conflict.

The conflict may cause the EU to double down on the dimension of “strategic rivalry” in its three-pronged China strategy. Since 2019, it has increasingly viewed China through the prism of strategic rivalry. Though China has no part in the Ukraine conflict and its policy after the conflict broke out is nothing extraordinary — especially compared with other non-Western countries. The conflict has somehow reinforced the EU’s worldview of an emerging rivalry — “autocracy vs. democracy”— and convinced the EU further with regard to China’s “otherness” and “rivalness.”

A more dangerous possibility would be that the strategic rivalry dimension will not run parallel with the remaining economic competition and negotiating partnership dimensions, but rather become a dominant one, poisoning China-Europe cooperation in other fields and changing the EU’s calculations on China-U.S. competition.

The Ukraine conflict will propel the EU to cut more economic links with China, since the conflict has exposed Europe’s strategic dependence on Russia. In the past few years, the EU has been developing its toolbox to increase its resilience. Its concern about over-dependence on China is not only created by the experience of supply chain ruptures during the pandemic, but by a deep-seated fear that China might leverage its economic position for strategic gain. This inner fear, exacerbated by reliance on Russia for natural gas, has been exposed more clearly in light of the conflict and will likely result in a stricter and more selective EU approach on economic links with China.

Unlike what some in Europe have suggested, China is fully aware of the strong feelings Europeans have about the Ukraine conflict. China is also not blind to the fact that the conflict will affect China-Europe relations. However, the form that impact takes is not straightforward but depends on how the two sides manage the fallout. To treat it as an excuse or justification to dampen bilateral relations, pushing the world toward further division, or making China-Europe relations more of a stabilizer for world peace and development, is a choice of consequence. Managing China-Europe relations for the greater good of the world is a responsibility both sides ought to take up.

First, China and Europe should continue to be forces for world stability. In his speech at the 2022 Boao Forum for Asia, President Xi Jinping explained how China cherishes stability and security, as the past has taught every Chinese person that “stability brings a country prosperity while instability leads a country to poverty.”

Though delivered in plain language, this remark carried hefty weight. The EU should be reminded of the fact that China is not a disrupter of the current international order, but one that has tried to sustain it. It is imperative for the EU to set red line with China and to limit the risk of strategic rivalry developing into a cold war by a different name.

Second, China and Europe should shoulder their responsibility for global development. The conflict in Ukraine risks derailing the global economic recovery after the pandemic. Both China and Europe face daunting domestic demands and global expectations. China is unwavering in its commitment to reform and opening-up, no matter how the world changes, and will continue to provide public goods through global development initiatives.

The EU is right to make domestic reforms to strengthen its competitiveness and its digital and green transformation, but it needs to tread carefully in its search for economic resilience — in view of its role and reputation in world trade and economics — to avoid creating setbacks for economic globalization.

Third, the Ukraine conflict presents China and Europe with challenges they have not experienced before, and the two sides should rise to the occasion to make their bilateral relations more strategic and more resilient. Instead of adopting a “take my side, otherwise you are complicit” approach, or creating a narrative about moral high ground, the two sides should talk about their respective visions for European security and try to build a basic formula to shield the core of China-Europe relations from “third factors” — first the United States and now Russia. The April summit was a necessary connection in challenging times. With differences in thinking and common responsibility ahead, the two sides need to continue their hard work. 

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