The latest leaders’ meeting and trajectory of the past summits shows that EU-China relations are diverging, says Grzegorz Stec. As the old ways of engagement are outdated, Brussels needs to rethink whether the model of its relationship with Beijing is sustainable.
EU-China summits used to be the format in which the two sides set their cooperation agenda and tried to jointly address differences. But now they are increasingly becoming a platform for stating opposing positions and, at best, practicing damage control and maintaining some dialogue. As China becomes more assertive and authoritarian and the EU more geopolitically forthright and willing to use its policy tools, the two sides are less likely to make concessions to one another and these meetings are ever less likely to produce major agreement.
The EU-China summit on April 1, 2022 was exceptional given the geopolitical stakes amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but its outcome was an expression of this larger trend. There was no shortage of unflattering descriptions about the virtual meeting’s tone and result. EU leaders referred to it as a “war-time summit” and “not business as usual” and EU High Representative Josep Borrell described it as a “dialogue of the deaf”, with the EU and China being unable to have a constructive discussion either on Ukraine or bilateral tensions. Both sides failed to agree on a joint statement.
Summit 2022: Limited results, given opposing positions
But at least the EU and China agreed to keep talking. The two sides pledged to restart their bilateral dialogue on human rights and prepared the ground for a series of upcoming high-level dialogues, formats which bring together European Commissioners with Chinese Ministers or other relevant counterparts to discuss topical issues.
Still, the EU used the summit to draw lines in the sand on Russia’s war and key bilateral issues.
EU leaders issued an only thinly veiled warning that any practical support for Moscow would lead to significant economic costs for China. They pointed to the volume of EU-China trade (around six times that of trade between China and Russia) and the importance of the EU as a technology supplier to China (implying that Beijing should not take access to the European market for granted).
The goal is to change Beijing’s strategic calculus regarding its support for Moscow, especially in light of the economic pressure in China amid the covid19-related disruptions and the desire for stability in the runup to the 20th National Congress of the CCP this fall. However, the EU’s unity and resolve about pursuing this course remains to be tested. EU member states agreeing on potential measures to target Beijing would be a politically more challenging feat than in the case of Russia.
Chinese leaders seemed little impressed and were not interested in any substantial discussion about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Chinese readout of President Xi Jinping’s points were released just 15 minutes into his hour-long meeting with EU leaders. China reiterated the talking points from previous exchanges with European and American leaders and would not commit to any new actions.
A day after the summit, Beijing said it did not see itself as a “related party on the crisis in Ukraine” and would maintain “normal trade with any other country.” But there are some indications that it might still be dissuaded from expanding its support for Moscow and interfering with the sanctions. Chinese state-owned oil refineries were recently reported to be reluctant to agree new Russian oil contracts, despite considerable discounts being offered by the vendors.
Overshadowed by geopolitical developments, the summit also saw no meaningful discussion of long-standing obstacles to the relationship – China’s economic coercion of Lithuania, which disrupts the functioning of the bloc’s single market, the mutual EU-China sanctions of March 2021, European concerns over human and labor rights in Xinjiang and other regions, and the issue of market access for EU companies in China.
Nevertheless, the EU said it remained open to cooperating with Beijing on global health issues – including the export of mRNA vaccines to China – and on climate affairs. While not necessarily subscribing to the Chinese depiction of EU-China relations as a force to “offset uncertainties in the international landscape,” the EU sees the need to leave room for practical measures to contain excessive global economic spillovers of the war in Ukraine, including on food and energy security.
Recent summit results highlight growing divergence
The summit’s limited practical outcomes and political tensions are symbolic of the gradual decline of EU-China relations and increasingly challenging EU-China summits in recent years. For both sides, the exchanges have become both more important and more challenging. The summits remain an important format for direct communication between leaders. But they are increasingly also becoming a platform for stating positions and delineating differences, rather than a forum in which to engage in constructive dialogue, resolve differences and define joint initiatives.