Signaled at the Party Congress, China’s strategic trajectory does not bode well for EU-China relations during Xi’s third term.
The EU needs to factor a shift in Beijing’s priorities into its long-term China policy. Xi’s work report solidifies their change with security and ideology gaining importance over economic priorities to sustain legitimacy, as seen by the dynamic zero-Covid policy and growing assertiveness in Taiwan policy. The party’s focus on stability – through expanding control, leveraging nationalism, securing China’s geopolitical position through adjusting the international order and increasing self-reliance – is set to exacerbate the EU’s existing concerns.
The EU’s Chinese counterparts may become further ideologically constrained, i.e., less flexible, narrowing space for constructive engagement. The makeup of the new Politburo Standing Committee and limited representation of moderates or economic technocrats (like Li Keqiang, Hu Chunhua or Liu He), in the new Politburo show priority being given to ideological commitment and political alignment over meritocratic pragmatism. Moreover, Xi signaled that officials across the system are more likely to be evaluated on the basis of their adherence to the ideological line.
Being aware of the strategic trajectory outlined during the Congress, the EU should revisit its own EU-China Strategic Outlook from 2019 – retaining the three-pronged approach but revising its action plan, adding a new set of short to mid-term deliverables focused on the EU’s own policies and actions on its own side rather than bilateral objectives. Similarly, as China may at times seek to improve diplomatic momentum – as in the case of the G20 summit – the EU should try to capitalize on such instances to achieve verifiable commitments from Beijing on issue specific dialogues. The EU’s engagement with China should focus more on immediate and concrete gains, as the long-term trajectory of their objectives appear misaligned and underpinned by global competition.