(Analysis) The EU’s Evolving China Strategy in a Turbulent Global Landscape

Vitalii Rishko

The EU-China relations have reached a new milestone of mistrust, disagreements, and caution, particularly since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Navigating the complex relationship between the EU and China has always been challenging. Given the intricate nature of the EU and the decision-making process involved, establishing a coherent China policy has consistently sparked debates. The concerns related to human rights also significantly shape the EU’s stance towards China, limiting the possibility of expanding relations. On the one hand, the rise of China necessitates finding common ground and paying considerable attention to relations with Beijing. On the other hand, the EU finds itself in a predicament due to China’s ambitions to challenge the position of the US within the international system and the rules-based order created by the West.

The EU’s policy towards China faces a threefold challenge. Firstly, the EU’s normative power position and commitment to safeguarding and promoting democracy, human rights, and other fundamental freedoms hinder closer relations with China. Secondly, while the EU has always been open to mutually beneficial cooperation with China regarding shared interests, China’s aim to reshape what it perceives as an unjust and discriminatory international order does not align with the Union’s interests. Lastly, the transatlantic bonds between Brussels and Washington further complicate the bilateral agenda between the EU and China, especially concerning various foreign policy, trade and security issues.

China’s promotion of a new vision of global governance through its institutions challenges the concept of effective multilateralism and the liberal order. The intensifying competition between the United States and China, China’s growing influence in the Global South, and ever-increasing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region are compelling the EU to reassess its China policy. Consequently, the EU faces crucial questions: How should the EU engage with Beijing to minimize the risks associated with China’s rise? Should the EU align entirely with the US on China? Which policy approach should the EU adopt: de-risking or even decoupling? It is, therefore, crucial to analyze the place of China in the EU’s strategic documents and provide a brief overview of the relations between them. Subsequently, it is essential to delve into the discussions surrounding the EU’s future Chinese policy and the recalibration of the current policy as a response to the Russian invasion and China’s ambivalent stance.

Understanding the Institutional Dynamics in EU-China Relations

Institutionalization of the EU-China relations. Source: European External Action Service

The European Union and China have institutionalized their relations through various mechanisms. The EU and China regularly hold summits to discuss and coordinate their bilateral ties. These summits provide a platform for high-level dialogue and the exchange of political, economic, and strategic views. The agenda depends on the global geopolitical situation and the internal situations in both the EU and China. These summits have also become a platform for the two sides to draw red lines and voice their positions on various issues. In addition to the summits, the EU and China have established High-Level Strategic Dialogue, which involves meetings between senior officials from both sides, typically at the ministerial level or above. These meetings allow both sides to exchange views, deepen mutual understanding, and explore avenues for collaboration. The dialogue covers many topics, including foreign policy, security, trade, investment, climate change, and other areas.

The year 2003 was crucial for EU-China relations for several reasons. A significant development was the creation of the EU-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which deepened and broadened cooperation. Another important milestone was adopting the EU’s security strategy, the guiding framework for the EU’s foreign and security policies in the 21st century. At that time, the EU’s engagement with China was dominated by liberal and idealistic views, influenced by the post-Cold War realities of the world. The EU’s desire, as stated in the 2003 ‘European Security Strategy: A Secure Europe in a Better World,’ was to make China a more open, reliable, and responsible partner. The EU was eager to support China’s development and transformation as it would allow it to jointly address major challenges such as climate change, security, and migration. The EU welcomed Beijing’s push for assuming greater responsibility in world affairs. Fairtrade and economic competition were the cornerstones of mutually beneficial relations between the EU and China. However, the EU’s perspective at that time was naive, considering the prosperity and peace enjoyed in Europe after a century of instability and conflicts in the 20th century. The European Security Strategy suggested that spreading the rule of law and democracy was invaluable in transforming authoritarian regimes, subsequently bringing security and stability. 

In 2013, the EU and China jointly adopted the EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation to strengthen their strategic partnership. This agenda aimed to be implemented through various mechanisms, including the annual Summit facilitated by the yearly High-Level Strategic Dialogue, High-Level Economic and Trade Dialogue, and the bi-annual People-to-People Dialogue. The EU and China reiterated their shared responsibility as key actors in a multipolar global landscape to promote peace, prosperity, and sustainable development. They committed to strengthening their strategic partnership based on equality, respect, and trust.

The EU in a contested world infographic by Christian Dietrich. Source: European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS)

In 2016, in response to various events that had shaken Europe, such as terrorist attacks, the migration and refugee crisis, instability in the EU’s neighbours, and the UK’s departure from the EU, several important documents were released addressing the relations between Brussels and Beijing. The 2016 Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament reaffirmed that democracy, human rights, and promoting shared values remained fundamental EU policy tenets and central to bilateral relations with China. The EU expressed its support for developing a full, healthy, and independent civil society in China and efforts to strengthen the rule of law. The EU declared its commitment to effective multilateralism while acknowledging the value divergence. Human rights discourse played a crucial role in the EU’s relations with Beijing, as it served as a “balancer” to avoid going too far in dealing with China. The EU’s stance on fundamental freedoms and its identity as a champion of human rights was an integral part of its soft power. Deviating from this approach would damage the EU’s image.

In this respect, it was acknowledged that the EU and China had different levels of ambition, and their views on global governance, the international system, trade, and the economy did not always align. The 2016 EU Global Strategy emphasized the importance of enhancing economic diplomacy and the security role in Asia for European prosperity. The EU aimed to engage China with respect for the rule of law, pursue a coordinated approach to China’s westward connectivity efforts, and seek fair competition, intellectual property rights, technology cooperation, and discussions on economic reform, human rights, and climate action.

In March 2019 the EU published a document titled ‘EU-China – A strategic outlook,’ which reflected a change in the EU’s perception of China. The document reiterated the need for cooperation with Beijing based on shared interests. It highlighted the strategic importance of China, emphasizing that the EU and China were two of the three largest economies and traders in the world. The EU mentioned that China could no longer be regarded as a developing country but as a key global actor and leading technological power. With China’s increasing presence in the world, including in Europe, the EU called for greater responsibilities from China in upholding the rules-based international order and greater reciprocity, non-discrimination, and openness in its system. The EU acknowledged that China was simultaneously a cooperation partner, a negotiating partner, an economic competitor, and a systemic rival in different policy areas. 

Human Rights Violations, Deteriorating Relations and the Russian Invasion

Hong Kong protesters’ rally to support Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Source: Investing.com
Photo: © Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

As the relationship between the European Union and China became more complicated, increasing tensions and subsequent events highlighted the challenges and intricacies of their evolving dynamics. Firstly, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted relations negatively. Discussions were held regarding the virus’s origin, transparency, and vaccine access. The EU member states called for an unbiased investigation into the virus’s origin and accused China of disinformation. Besides that, in 2019, the EU and China also concluded in principle negotiations on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). Still, the growing violations of human rights by China in Xinjiang and China’s assault on freedoms in Hong Kong led to a significant deterioration between the EU and China. The EU introduced sanctions against Chinese officials and entities responsible for violating human rights. It led to the freezing of agreement ratification. In this respect, the protection of human rights again determined and impacted the relations. The CAI had not been ratified also under the criticism and pressure of the United States.

That is why 2019 was a tipping point for the EU’s frustration over China. Brussels also realized that, indeed, both the EU and China are important to each other, but still, they have different priorities and geopolitical goals. As stated earlier, it was in 2019 that the EU labelled China as a systemic rival. The EU hoped China would conduct market reform, but that was different. Between 2019 and 2020, facing a hostile geopolitical environment in the context of the pandemic and bearing in mind frictions in transatlantic relations and Donald Trump’s administration, the EU realized that it has to have sufficient capabilities to be able to act on its own. That is why the discourse on strategic autonomy has been revitalized, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine only strengthened the impetus and sparked discussion on the EU’s actorness as a security and defence actor.

With the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the need to rethink the EU’s relations with China arose further. Russia’s brutal war of aggression cast doubts over Beijing’s position regarding Moscow, leading to an increasingly negative image of China in the EU. EU officials had high expectations that China would use its influence to shape and influence Kremlin’s decision. They also voiced that due to China’s growing international role and its responsibilities, Beijing should do everything in its power to make Vladimir Putin halt the war. For instance, in April 2023, Josep Borrel, the EU’s HR/VP for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said that countries, particularly the powerful ones, should uphold and strengthen the rules-based international order. China, being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has expressed its commitment to safeguarding national sovereignty and border integrity. Considering its significant economic ties with the European Union and Ukraine, it would be reasonable for China to leverage its positive relationship with Russia to encourage President Putin to pursue a peaceful and lawful course. He also stressed that there are no indications of such efforts.

The EU and its US counterparts continued exerting pressure on China to use its influence to stop Russia’s war. After a year of ambiguity, China decided to present what was called a “peace plan” in various media. This 12-point document was China’s position, not a detailed plan with a precise sequence of steps that parties should follow to reach peace. The publication of this document further contributed to the negative image of Beijing. While the document indeed mentioned support for territorial integrity, on the other hand, it blurred the roles of the warring parties, hence blurring the roles of victims and aggressors. The document also calls to stop unilateral sanctions, which shows that Beijing is sensitive to any sanctions imposed by the West against Russia, contributing to the hostile image of China. This is exactly how the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, described the Chinese document, adding that it is selective and does not consider Russia an aggressor state, using the language of twisted international law. Therefore, for the EU, there have only doubled doubts over China, stating that China’s declared neutrality is essentially pro-Russian. China’s zero-limits friendship with Russia declared before the invasion and Beijing’s continuing act of profiting from the war in Ukraine by purchasing Russia’s oil, gas, and other products at significantly reduced prices leaves no place for a positive image of China. Finally, the authoritarian threat posed by China puts it in the same boat as the Kremlin. Negative perceptions of China from the EU’s side are reinforced against China’s aggressive manoeuvres in the Indo-Pacific and threatening moves concerning Taiwan.

Debates on the EU’s New China Strategy

Xi Jinping holds trilateral meeting with Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen in Beijing, April 2023. Source: BBC

Based on the tense relations with China, turbulent international conjuncture, and Russia’s war against Ukraine, the EU is thought to re-evaluate its stance on China. While the EU is systematically undergoing the process of decoupling from Russian influence, which poses an immediate threat to peace and security, Brussels is significantly reducing the Union’s dependence on Russian energy. The case of China is still different. China’s growing influence on the international system has significantly threatened Europe’s economic stability, political autonomy, core values, interests, and security. This challenge is not limited to confrontations but extends to the broader impact of China’s actions on the global stage. As such, Europe must take proactive measures to safeguard its sovereignty and protect its interests in the face of this threat. Recently, a three-hour debate took place in the European Parliament, focusing on the need for a new, coherent strategy for EU-China relations. Numerous MEPs supported the idea that Brussels has to recalibrate its policy regarding China and that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has opened the eyes of Europeans to the evolving cooperation between Beijing and Moscow and their threatening influence on democracy.

It is also pertinent to note the statements made by various groups and MEPs on China. For instance, Manfred Weber, MEP, Chairman of the EPP, emphasized the need for a distinct European policy towards China alongside democratic partners worldwide. Weber stated that Europe possesses the necessary instruments, particularly in security and defence, but requires unified political will from Member States. The EPP Group also reiterated support for Taiwan and highlighted two red lines: no arming of Russia and no invasion of Taiwan. Radosław Sikorski MEP commented that the EU’s approach to China is based on cooperation, competition, and confrontation, with a clear commitment to supporting the United States in case of a Chinese attack. The Renew Europe Group in the European Parliament reiterated the need for a new strategy for China, emphasizing dialogue on global challenges like climate change while expressing concerns about human rights violations. They highlighted the importance of maintaining essential ties with Beijing while defending European values and seeking an equal partnership. The group emphasized the need for unity and resilience against China’s divisive tactics and reducing dependencies. The trade relationship with China should be based on rules and reciprocity. The group emphasized the importance of strengthening partnerships with like-minded allies. These statements are vital to demonstrating that China is an important partner, but there are issues where the EU cannot make any concessions, including human rights and security.

In Europe, however, there are two distinct and often opposing approaches towards dealing with China. Firstly, there is a push to strengthen economic ties. But on the other hand, there is growing concern over the risks of becoming too dependent on China, security concerns in the Asia Pacific region, China’s approach to governance, and its views on human rights. There seem to be different approaches to China from the Member States and the EU. It was traceable during Emmanuel Macron’s and Olaf Scholz’s “business visits” with representatives of respective companies to Beijing and the visit of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who chose to maintain a cold tone in its communication with Beijing. It could be strange for someone, but for those who observe the level of unity within the EU, it is not. It is difficult to find common ground because the Member States have their foreign policies and visions of bilateral relations with China, ambitions, and strategies that might contradict a common European strategy, and the cases of France and Germany are notable in this respect. Berlin has even already published its new China strategy.

Defining proper China policy is tricky because of the high level of interdependence between Brussels and Beijing. Besides that, external factors limit the possibilities of enhancing relations with China, such as US-China rivalry. Seeking strategic autonomy is also seen differently in the US: for some observers, it is a way for Europe to do more in terms of its security, but on the other hand, it is conducting foreign policy that would not always align with the US. Recent interview by Macron, who doubted the need to fight alongside Washington over Taiwan, are a perfect example that is perhaps silently supported by many European leaders. This shows that the EU has different priorities than the United States in its relations with China and its engagement in the Indo-Pacific. The EU’s new approach towards China will take a careful middle-ground approach, reflecting its dedication to protecting human rights and democratic values. Rather than completely severing ties, the updated policy will likely aim to minimize risks. As the partnership between the two sides is crucial, maintaining a positive relationship with China will remain a top priority for the EU. However, it is visible that China’s potential role in the Russian-Ukrainian war will be decisive for certain aspects of a newly crafted strategy and on how far the EU could go.

Suggested readings

Bond, I., Godement, F., Maull, H. W., & Stanzel, V. (2022). “Rebooting Europe’s China Strategy”. Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Haenle, P., Chee, C. H., Yawei, L., & Baer, D. (2023). “Is Europe Aligned on China?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Koch , Elisabeth (2023). “European Strategic Autonomy after Macron’s Trip to China.” Wilson Center.

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(Analysis) The EU’s Evo…

by Vitalii Rishko time to read: 12 min