The belief among Europeans, up until a few years ago, has been that by pro-actively engaging (with) China, through economic cooperation and cultural dialogue, they can help spread European values, and ultimately make China more like themselves. However, over time, the sustained resilience of China’s party-state and its model of socio-economic governance has made many in Europe disillusioned with the engagement paradigm: China, under the watch of the Communist Party was and is not going to change. More even so, coming out of the 2008-09 global financial crisis relatively better off than the West, China used the momentum to assume an ever more ambitious and proactive posture on the global stage – a tendency only amplified with the arrival of Xi Jinping at the helm of the Communist Party in 2012, and the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013.
In the context of the EU-China relations, the emergence of a resilient, ambitious and proactive China on the global stage meant a change in dynamics, and reversal in roles. With the Belt and Road, China became the pro-active side, boosting investments in strategic infrastructure and technology, initiating new diplomatic gatherings such as 16/17+1 and doubling down on its soft power endeavors. It became an actor both within the EU, and in its immediate neighborhood.
In response, Europeans took time to recognize the emerging reality and to adapt their attitudes accordingly. However, the changes were profound: over the last several years, China, in addition to being treated as a partner-cum-competitor, has also started being increasingly seen as a systemic rival. The previously ignored Belt and Road was now given the spotlight – seen as a vehicle of China’s agenda in Europe (and beyond), and a potential threat both for the economic interests of Europe, as well as for EU’s norms and values.
Thus, while initially many Europeans have been enamored by Beijing’s win-win rhetoric, the enthusiasm has been gradually giving way to cautiousness over all sorts of issues: (lack of economic) reciprocity and market distortions; China’s alleged “divide and conquer” approach; but also human rights and what Beijing considers “core” issues such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea. EU-China summits have been marred by awkwardness and tensions. Economic relations were securitized. The significantly more dramatic change in the US policy on China under President Donald Trump has further contributed to the swing in the mood about China in Europe, too. And European companies, who have been traditionally the part of Europe’s landscape most supportive of cooperation with China, have also demonstrated dissatisfaction with the significantly fewer opportunities that China-led endeavors offered them than initially expected.
The change was not only discursive. Europeans have also undertaken important steps in response to China’s advances. As Chinese investment flows in Europe skyrocketed around 2015 (to levels much higher than the ones of European investment in China, making it a net investor), the EU initiated an investment screening mechanism. In response to China’s reach for technological leadership, the EU started debating pro-active industrial policies and ways to support the creation of European industrial champions. European governments have followed the US in preventing Chinese vendors from getting deals in the construction of European 5G networks. And in response to China’s push for infrastructure development cooperation, the EU has committed itself to Eurasian connectivity by launching the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy, and enlisting Japan as its main partner.
All of these developments have led to a significant change in the reality of EU-China relations: while being on the defense, the EU has effectively slowed down China’s advance in Europe and its neighborhood. However, in the process, the EU underwent dramatic changes itself. In a departure from the free market ideology, it embraced protectionist measures in terms of delimiting China’s economic presence in the continent. And while always concerned with Eurasian connectivity, the EU has now linked connectivity with strategic interests, and devised more of a “brick and mortar” developmentalist approach, “Silk Road-izing” its foreign policy. This last point also concerns how the EU has been changing its approach to enlargement – for instance, enlargement efforts in the Balkans, and the Berlin Process itself, have been increasingly framed as endeavors to fend off Chinese influence in the region.
The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the ongoing shifts in Europe’s discourse and policy on China. While less antagonistic than the American approach, Europeans voiced criticism of China’s early handling of the pandemic, and especially of Beijing’s attempts to place itself at the forefront of the global response to it. Amid the pandemic, the EU reinforced its criticisms of China, while the Chinese diplomats’ trips to Europe seem to have failed to produce the desired effects (as China has been pushing for 2020 to be a year of its relations with Europe). Unlike the experience with the aftermath of the global financial crisis when the two sides closely coordinated, there are now no talks of how the EU and China may cooperate in the process of post-pandemic economic recovery. In fact, intensified competition and rivalry seem more likely, as Europe increasingly converges with the US on the challenge of China (despite the fundamental differences in the Transatlantic relationship on all other issues).
With all these developments, it becomes evident that by adopting a tough stance on China, the EU may well be already becoming a more “geopolitical” actor, as desired by many in Europe. Somewhat paradoxically, this also shows that having not managed to significantly change China, the EU now is changing its own approach, and undergoing a significant transformation itself in the process. And in some way, this also shows that we have so far rarely asked a rather uncomfortable but necessary question: not how Europe has changed China, but rather how (the rise of) China has changed Europe?
Dr. Anastas Vangeli is a Research Fellow at the EU*Asia Institute, ESSCA School of Management and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the ChinaMed Project, Torino World Affairs Institute.