By Francesca Ghiretti
Yes, as long as that remains a low-cost effort that does not require China to make substantial changes!
Wu Hongbo, Beijing’s special representative for Europe, has recently visited Brussels and five other European countries in what appears to be an attempt for China to rescue its relationship with Europe. The previous attempt came from Huo Yuzhen, China’s special envoy to Eastern and Central Europe, in April who visited eight CEE countries to salvage the 16+1 format.
There are several elements that contribute to the argument that the EU is too important to lose for China, but the main one remains the economic relationship. The EU as an economic actor has long occupied a role of relevance for China both thanks to the advantages of the European single market and for the range and value of investments European enterprises make in China. The economic impact of the “zero Covid” policy and more specifically of the lockdown in Shanghai may push China to boost engagement with the EU, with the soon to be held High Level Economic Dialogue acting as a fitting forum for that purpose. Beijing remains vigilant to not violate any of the sanctions imposed on Russia brought about by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and seeks to clarify with its European partners that it is not in bed with Russia. However, while symbolic gestures to avoid further deterioration of the relationship could proliferate, do not expect major real concessions.
Even signals of good will such as the ratification of the International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions and the rounds of visits to European countries only show that China is willing to push engagement with Europe when it suits her interest and as long as it does not require actual change in policies and approach.
The EU is not the only important partner for China
While the future direction of EU-China relations seems at least in question, China is prioritizing other partners.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) are alternative markets evolving, which will compete with the EU’s single market. China is a member of the former and has applied to the latter.
Beijing is increasingly focusing on the Global South. Following the launch of the Global Security Initiative, China is changing gear in its foreign policy endeavors, bringing forward a more military-focused foreign policy. Despite not going as well as Beijing would have intended, Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent Pacific tour is a perfect example of China’s new approach to foreign policy.
The change in gear in foreign policy is in line with China’s long-standing conviction of the West’s historical decline. And in the so-called West, the EU is viewed by China’s leaders as an odd actor, one whose difficulty in balancing national and regional interests and varying competencies leave it unable to advance a credible and effective foreign policy.
Yet, economically and consequently strategically, the EU remains important to China, and so far, that has granted the EU quite some space to maneuver even in confronting contentious issues. But for how long?
Areas of attrition take a central role
Although the Commission remains measured in its approach, human rights and Taiwan have come to occupy an increasingly outspoken role in the EU’s agenda, and the European Parliament is driving it. Following the publication of the “Xinjiang Police Files”, political groups in the European Parliament have pushed a resolution on Xinjiang (more on this in the Buzzword).
During the annual EU-Taiwan trade and investment dialogue, the two have looked to upgrade their economic relationship. China has warned the EU of the risks but has not “punished” the block, not only because the Commission made sure not to cross the political red line, but also because unlike punishing single member states, punishing the whole of the EU may result in shooting oneself in the foot (more on this in the Review section).
The most important change is perhaps occurring in member states who no longer ignore or sideline difficult matters in their dealings with China. Even Germany seems to have taken tangible steps towards curbing its business links with the region. The government has refused to extend investment guarantees for certain Volkswagen projects in China.
However, CEE countries remain the most outspoken and active voices in the debate. The Czech Parliament’s foreign affairs committee has approved unanimously a resolution to leave the 16+1, which is now with the Foreign Ministry. While from July 1, the Presidency of the Council of the European Union will be in the hands of a China-skeptic Czechia, a position aided and abetted by Beijing’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The expectation is thus for the China-related agenda of the incoming Presidency to be pushing for a further distancing of the EU from China, which is set to test EU-China relations.
Beijing’s response to the growing tensions with the EU will be telling of how far China is willing to go to rescue its relationship with Europe.