China’s response to Russia’s war on Ukraine has been a rude awakening for many in Europe. Initial calls for China to mediate have given way to disillusionment with its increasingly open support for Moscow. Beijing’s position, however, can and should provide at least three key lessons for Europe.
First, Beijing increasingly looks at the world through the lens of its geopolitical competition with the United States (and the West at large). This means that China will not side with the US or Europe against countries it sees as geopolitical or strategic partners. No amount of engagement or cajoling is likely to change this position.
Second, China is still economically and technologically dependent on Western countries. The fear of secondary sanctions has driven Beijing to (mostly) comply with Western measures against Russia and to keep its material support for Moscow to a minimum. This is a point of leverage that Europe can use to increase deterrence, for example in the Taiwan Strait. But the EU must also keep in mind that China, too, has drawn this lesson and is now intensifying efforts to reduce its own dependencies.
A third, broader lesson is that economic interdependence not only does not stop wars but may even be weaponized in case of conflict. Applying this to EU China policy would require Europe to diversify its economic ties and reduce dependencies on China. It is also important that this lesson does not stay confined to those countries – such as Germany – that are facing energy shortages today. EU-China economic ties are much broader in nature and affect many more sectors and countries, including those in Southern Europe that have avoided the worst of the energy crisis.