Strategic autonomy: Contradiction of power and will
China’s interest in the concept of strategic autonomy is not new. Beijing has repeatedly expressed support for it or rather, as we discussed back in April 2021, for a “correct understanding of strategic autonomy.” It would mean the EU escaping the “state of total dependence on the United States” (对美国的全面依赖状态) and pursuing a “third way” (第三条道路) amid US-China tensions without challenging China’s interests.
Now, most of the Chinese researchers point to the fallout from the invasion as having a contradictory impact on the EU’s approach to strategic autonomy (see Quote 1).
On the one hand, they argue, the fallout from the conflict exposed the EU’s weakness and its dependence on the United States in multiple regards. These include military dependence on NATO or political dependence with suggestions that Washington pushed the EU to ramp up its sanctions on Russia. For instance, Huang Ying of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences invokes — primarily French and German — efforts to mediate with Russia as an example of the preferred approach (see Quote 2). This assessment ties to the wider narrative that the war is supposedly a conflict between the US-controlled West and Russia, prompted by NATO’s expansion (see Quote 3).
On the other hand, the Chinese experts believe that the exposure of these dependencies intensifies the EU’s desire to develop its strategic autonomy and mobilize the bloc to act. Still, they generally remain skeptical about the prospects of an EU that can achieve strategic autonomy. For instance, three prominent experts describe “four curses” (四重魔咒) that impede the EU’s potential to achieve strategic autonomy: limited ideological clarity about strategic autonomy’s objective; decreasing economic and limited security capabilities; reliance on the United States; and internal divisions.
The EU’s global standing and its relationship with China as a rising power, the logic follows, is to stem from how the bloc approaches the contradiction between its dependence on the US and its will to develop its own capabilities.
Transatlantic relations: Dependence and traps
That is where the impact of the war on transatlantic relations fits into the picture. The Chinese analysts note the recent tightening of transatlantic ties but are skeptical about the level of alignment of interest between the US and EU regarding the war in Ukraine (see Quote 4). The US is supposedly determined to prolong combat given limited costs and considerable geopolitical opportunity of rallying anti-Russia and anti-China coalitions as well as benefits from arms sales. Whereas the core European interest is described as seeing an end to the conflict as soon as possible given its devastating effect on energy supplies and prices, and their resulting knock-on economic and social impact.
Some go so far as to suggest that the EU is walking into a trap of its own making, pushed forward by the US. The argument being that, undermined by the economic impact of the conflict, the EU will struggle to develop its strategic capabilities and therefore become locked in a state of US-dependency (see Quote 5). All the while, the next US presidential elections may result in a return of Trumpism that would further hinder the EU’s capacity to increase its autonomy (see Quote 6). The implicit expectation is that this would make the EU more of a balancing power as opposed to a committed member of US-led, China-skeptic coalitions (see Quote 7).
While acknowledging the turbulences in the EU-China relations, Chinese experts point to the continued bilateral exchanges as an example of strategic autonomy at work. Despite the tense nature of the latest EU-China summit it is also invoked as such an example by some. The impact of China’s stance on Russia’s invasion upon EU-China relations remains largely ignored.
Furthermore, when talking about the EU and its strategic autonomy, the Chinese experts still predominantly reference positions of Germany and France (with understandable interest in President Macron), far more so than that of Brussels at large or specific EU institutions.
Takeaways for the EU
Extrapolating from the position of the experts in China, the EU should be aware of three points:
- First, the appreciation of the shift in EU-China relations stemming from Beijing’s tacit support for Moscow remains limited. It is necessary to continue to send clear messages that the issue is of critical relevance for the EU, while ensuring that Chinese counterparts do not mistake such comments for supposed echoing of Washington.
- Second, the EU’s unity continues to be put under question in China with over-emphasis on the positions of France and Germany. An opportunity to address this may be the alleged invitation to selected European leaders to visit Beijing on the sidelines of the upcoming G20 summit this fall. Should the visit take place, it should be preceded by a dedicated European Council Summit that will establish a joint message to Beijing.
- Third, and most important, the EU should have limited expectations for change in China’s policy towards the bloc. China may feel confident about having the baseline stability of its relationship with the EU for granted over the bloc’s strategic autonomy ambitions. Chinese leadership may make tactical conciliatory offers to stabilize the relations, given domestic needs — such as avoiding economic turbulences at time of its economic slowdown or receiving a diplomatic boost prior to the upcoming Party Congress — but a reset of relations is unlikely. Beijing may instead be biding its time with the EU and hoping for a potential change in the White House in 2024. In response, the EU should continue developing the transatlantic partnership while improving strategic autonomy through broadening the network of partnerships with other like-minded actors.