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China’s View of European Defence Integration

The European defence strategy is closely monitored by China. For better cooperation, the European Union has developed a joint strategic framework with the aim of integrating and coordinating its forces and capabilities. At a MERICS Lunch Talk, MERICS Visiting Academic Fellow Dr. Scott W. Harold presented his research on the EU’s defence policy and Chinese perspectives on European defence integration. The event took place on August 29, 2018, in cooperation with the Young China Watchers and was hosted by Dr. Mareike Ohlberg, research associate at MERICS.

Harold focused on the European Union Global Strategy (EUGS) from 2016 and the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) from 2017. From the Chinese perspective, if  EU defence integration splits the trans-Atlantic alliance, then the EU could become an important partner and separate ‘pole’ in the international system for contesting what China regards as a hegemonic US-led post-war order. However, the EU is also a target of Chinese interests, to exert further influence and gain technological knowledge, as well as  a threat to China due to its genuine liberal democratic system.

China is “still reserving judgement by observing the European strategy closely” describes Harold. To become a relevant and successful joint security player, the EU is seeking to encourage its member countries to spend more on defence. Besides a long-term understanding of a joint European defence, the EU is missing “a common assessment of where the greatest national security threat comes from,” he points out.

The EU has a rather positive image in China. China views the prospect of a more unified EU as an instance of ‘multipolarity’, diluting the influence of the U.S. in international society. Initiatives like PESCO are considered a “new milestone” and “substantial advance” in EU integration by Chinese analysts, who also regard EU defense integration as a form of “reinsurance” or an alternative to reliance on the US and NATO. At present, China sees either failure or success of the joint European defence strategy as possible outcome. Since the strategy “will not affect China’s defence and foreign interests for years to come”, given that Europe has to tackle several crises and security issues within its boundaries, China can afford to wait to come to a more concrete assessment of the EU’s defence integration initiatives.

Harold emphasized that the Chinese analysis of the European defence strategy is thorough and fact-based indicating a certain pragmatism with the “wait and see” attitude by China towards PESCO. China is expecting a further development of the European defence strategy with its integrating approach and Harold sees a “mildly laudatory” disposition in Chinese evaluation for a strengthened EU: an increased influence in the future could bring changes to the current security order.