China once viewed Europe as a counterweight to US power. Now the ties are at an awfully low level

Eight years later, the optimism of that period has evaporated, and relations between China and the European Union have reached what analysts call the clear bottom of recent decades.
Europe’s concerns about China’s global ambitions and human rights record, US-China tensions, tit-for-tat sanctions, and now Russia’s war in Ukraine — whose impact on China-EU relations Beijing appears to have either underestimated or ignored. – all brought the relationship to apogee.

This shift is the culmination of a series of moves in which Beijing may have at times underestimated the extent to which it was pushing Europe away, but also seemed willing to pay the price.

But it is a serious blow to Beijing’s ideal vision: a Europe with strong ties to China that provides a counterbalance to American power and position.

“China and the EU should act as the two main forces maintaining world peace and offsetting uncertainty on the international stage,” Xi told EU leaders at a summit in April, urging them to abandon the “rival bloc mentality.”

But those words do not appear to have met the expectations of the European side, which has instead focused on putting pressure on China to help bring peace to Ukraine. “Dialogue was anything but dialogue. In any case, it was a dialogue of the deaf,” Josep Borrell, head of the EU for foreign affairs, later said.

downward spiral

In recent decades, Beijing has carefully built its relationship with Europe, hosting a special annual summit with Central and Eastern European countries and seeking to leverage its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, which received the backing of one G7 member when Italy joined in 2019. .

US concerns about cooperation risks with China caused a stir in Europe. And European countries have seen for themselves how China Xi has become increasingly assertive in foreign policy, from the belligerent tone of its wolf warrior diplomats to the establishment of a naval base in Africa, the rise of aggressiveness in the South China Sea and towards Taiwan, and also targeting companies or countries that have broken his line on sensitive issues.
Allegations of serious human rights abuses in northwest China’s Xinjiang and the dismantling of civil society in Hong Kong have also played a role in changing European perceptions, analysts say. Chinese officials have called allegations that more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are being held in internment camps in Xinjiang “fiction” and the discussion of these issues has been called “interference” in internal affairs.

The EU declared China a “systemic rival” in 2019, and relations have continued to deteriorate ever since.

“Now China is demanding that the rest of the world show it the respect it deserves and recognize the position that China is taking without paying too much attention to what others might think,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China SOAS Institute at the University of London.

This approach forced Western democracies to “abandon years of policy of helping China modernize and rise in the hope that closer economic integration will encourage China to become a responsible participant in world affairs,” Tsang said.

Economic advantage

China was the third largest export market for European goods and the largest source of goods entering Europe last year, but tensions have taken their toll on economic relations between the EU and Beijing.

Earlier this year, a dispute between China and Lithuania prompted the EU to file a WTO case. He accused Beijing of “discriminatory trade practices against Lithuania” in retaliation for what Beijing sees as a violation by the Baltic state of its “One China” principle, under which it declares a self-governing Taiwan as its sovereign territory.

The biggest financial casualty has been a long-awaited trade deal between the EU and China, which stalled last year after being caught in the crossfire of an exchange of sanctions. Beijing has sanctioned EU lawmakers and bodies, European think tanks and independent academics after the EU sanctioned four Chinese officials for alleged violations in Xinjiang.

But the damage was more than just a deal.

“This overreaction (from Beijing) was not a wise move,” said Ingrid d’Hoog, a senior fellow at the Dutch think tank Clingendael, pointing to the detrimental effect on public opinion.

“China’s strategy towards Europe was falling apart and it didn’t seem to realize that all of these actions – overly reactive sanctions, coercive diplomacy – were ultimately working against China’s diplomatic goals…and also pushing Europe closer to the United States. States,” she said.

While these actions may have spurred a shift in European thinking with clear economic implications, they have benefited Beijing’s foreign ministry, according to Henry Gao, a law professor at Singapore’s Yong Pung How School of Management University.

“For them, cold relations are a necessary price, and it is more important to achieve political goals,” he said.

Blind spot?

China’s most recent calculations on how to respond to Russia’s war in Ukraine may prove to be the most costly when it comes to ties with Europe.

When European countries and the US united in support of Ukraine, China refused to condemn the war, instead strengthening its relationship with Russia and joining the Kremlin in blaming the US and NATO.

According to Li Mingjiang, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of International Relations, School of International Studies. S. Rajaratnam at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, there were leading political analysts in China who understood the negative consequences of China’s position for its European relations. But that assessment may have been “underestimated” by decision makers, Lee said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Brazil in 2019.
He added that speculations about the geopolitical importance of ties with Russia, as well as the close relationship between Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, also likely came true.

“This is really a huge dilemma for China… and they couldn’t afford to have any major negative consequences for the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. That imperative really prevailed,” Li said.

Chinese scholars have recognized China’s myopia.

Chen Dingding, founding director of the Intellisia Institute think tank in Guangzhou, wrote in co-authored article in The Diplomat that the risks of war in Ukraine are “not fully understood in China”, where officials and scholars have failed to acknowledge the “shock” that death and destruction in Ukraine will bring to Europeans.

“The geographic as well as emotional closeness of the war will fundamentally change how Europeans view shared security, economic dependency, and national sovereignty for years to come,” write Chen and his international team of co-authors.

However, strong voices in many countries continue to advocate for a balanced approach to China, d’Houguet said. The future may not bring disengagement, she said, but rather a recalibration within Europe of how to cooperate with China while keeping security and balance in mind.

“But right now – and this also applies to Europe’s relationship with Russia – normative considerations seem to carry more weight than economic interests,” she said.

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