The EU-China relationship is complicated and complex. The asymmetry of economics has recently led to the asymmetry of diplomacy. Although the goal should be the opposite, the EU seeks to sustain contact while China dictates terms. As the three leaders of the EU jet off to Beijing, more questions appear about the sense of the EU-China summit.
Thursday and Friday, the EU-China summit takes place in Beijing. President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Council, Charles Michel and High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Joseph Borell, are meeting both Prime Minister Li Quining and President Xi Jinping. De-risking, China leans towards Russia, and vague international affairs appear from an unclear agenda. Constructive talks might be difficult as the trade deficit, in this case, goes together with an even more significant trust deficit.[i]
Much has changed since the last in-person EU-China summit in 2019. Hosted in Brussels just before European elections by Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, it was the first such meeting after the EU’s trichotomic approach (China as a cooperation and negotiation partner, economic competitor and systemic rival) was defined in the Strategic Outlook earlier that year.[ii] When new EU leadership emerged, Ursula von der Layen announced its cabinet as ‘the geopolitical Commission’[iii]. Joseph Borell soon coined his Sinatra Doctrine, which aimed to put the EU aside from the US-China rivalry.[iv] After the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hong Kong protests, concerns about the situation in Xinjiang and wolf warrior diplomacy, and more countries, especially in CEE, started to be assertive towards Beijing. Despite that, the EU Council under the German presidency rushed to sign a controversial Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), which later ended up in the ratification freezer in the European Parliament over tit-for-tat personal sanctions between Beijing and Brussels.
Communication has been restored after China’s diplomatic self-isolation during the prolonged COVID-19 lockdown (during that time, EU-China summits were held online). Only at the end of last year, China started its diplomatic offensive, hosting many world leaders and international formats. The first Western head of state to visit Beijing in 3 years was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in late 2022. The visit came at a controversial time, just weeks after the leaders met at the G20 summit in Bali. Moreover, the German-Sino summit gave legitimacy to the absorption of power by Xi Jinping soon after the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. On top of that, Lithuania, one of the EU member states, suffered coercive measures, leading to an open case in the WTO.[v] Soon, with their official visits to Beijing followed first Charles Michel and then Ursula von der Layen accompanying Emmanuel Macron, who, on his way back to Europe, gave an unfamous interview for Politico.[vi] Later, a more assertive visit of Anne Bearbock and a release of German China’s strategy highlighted the inconsistency among the European decision-makers and the lack of vision on executing a multi-faced policy towards China effectively.
The current EU administration can finally hold its first and most likely the last in-person summit with China. All three delegation members have visited China once within the previous 13 months, but always individually. The intensity of the contact and the timing of the current visit are controversial for a number of reasons.
First of all, despite having much to discuss on bilateral relations, there is no room for progress on any crucial matters. It is hard to imagine any incentive, leverage or even coercion of the EU which can change China’s position on the war in Ukraine, Taiwan, Xinjiang or economic subsidies. With no hopes of CAI ratification and ongoing investigation on Chinese subsidies, no breakthrough in the economic field is foreseen. Negotiating another deal to open the Chinese market would take years. Nothing more can be expected than small, punctual and meaningless in the bigger picture deals. The same comes for multilateral relations. Despite having ambitions of shaping global affairs, the EU and China do not have many areas to find cooperation platforms. As an excuse, for the last few years, such common ground was the climate, but now it seems evident that both parties have little to agree on. China will remain the primary source of CO2 emissions while at the same time sticking to the status of a developing country. The EU Global Gateway is always depicted in a contrary to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, never as a possible complementary project for the Global South. Both parties’ commitment to open trade does not go beyond the statement, as the idea of what it means differs profoundly between Europe and China. Whatever appears on the table turns into a stalemate with outcomes known without the summit.
Secondly, the EU member states vary substantially in their approach to China, with Hungary or Portugal being more cooperative with Beijing and others such as Lithuania and recently Italy appearing on a collision course.[vii] Europe is far from speaking in one voice on China, which gives little legitimacy to the EU delegation. A coherent EU policy on China is in high need, which was one of the leading advocacy causes of the Warsaw Security Forum Report 2023.[viii] Many countries, including Poland, do not have a China policy at all, which can not be continued forever. In the meantime, the Chinese approach to the EU, including the current summit, is used against Europe itself, creating more divisions, friction and confusion among the decision members, societies and the rest of the world. .
Thirdly, China, as a systemic rival, gains its self-confidence, and Xi’s administration acts more dismissively towards the EU, which is being more desperate to sustain the contact. It was visible during Charles Michel’s solo trip last year and in April when the state celebrated Macron’s visit, while Ursula von der Layen was treated as an administrative officer. Then, Borrel’s delegation was postponed twice. What makes the current trip to Beijing even more awkwardly look like a tribute to the emperor is the visit of Alexander Lukashenko earlier this week, just a few days ahead of the summit. It creates a picture of the EU desperately seeking the attention of a dictator despite not getting anything in return and diplomatic taunts.
Fourthly, although China, from Europe’s perspective, did not cross any of the red lines on Ukraine, it is coming closer. On the one hand, there is no evidence of major military aid to Russia, but on the other, more often, footage of individual arms made in China appears on the battlefield in Ukraine. China does not recognise Crimea or any other annexed territories as part of Russia, but on many occasions, questioned the legitimacy of the sovereignty of the countries of Eastern Europe. It has its own agenda with Russia that is in a very limited scope, a subject of its relations with the West and beyond any of the EU’s control, or at least the EU has, so far, no idea how to control it. Chinese salami tactics in Europe should have a firmer reaction from the EU as a whole, as a similar strategy of Russia between 2014 and 2022 already has brought a war to the continent.
Finally, the summit takes place parallel to the investigation of Finland and Estonia, which virtually proves the Hong Kong vessel to be responsible for destroying the Balticonnector pipeline.[ix] Dragging a 6-ton anchor through the sea bottom at the Gulf of Finland for 180 km must have been deliberate, and it could even be considered a hybrid attack on the critical infrastructure against both NATO and the EU. Nevertheless, the event of rather considerable significance does not find its place on the agenda and has not been commented on by the EU leaders. On top of that, Estonia, as yet another country of the CEE, faces warnings from China over the opening of a Taiwan representative office.[x] Unfortunately, it seems that putting more sensitive issues forward just before the summit could make China cancel the visit or lower its level, questioning the efforts of the geopolitical Commission.
With no expected joint statement, unclear agenda, and questions with no answers, the summit is not likely to bring any tangible results apart from the sole purpose of bringing parties to the table. Instead, it gives legitimacy to the communist regime just as it increases its malign actions in Europe and helps it to depict itself as the centre of global attention. While the EU does not receive anything back apart from vague economic promises, Beijing successfully prevents closer transatlantic alignment with China and more decisive action limiting access to the EU market. Although some cooperation is required, it can also be done on a lower level, and the strategic stalling must eventually lead to a more coherent EU policy on China. The geopolitical ambitions should not overshadow the reality.
Author: Tomasz Obremski, Advocacy and Analysis Specialist at Casimir Pulaski Foundation
[i] Chimits François and Stec Grzegorz, “EU-China Summit + EU-US Summit,” MERICS, November 20, 2023, https://merics.org/en/merics-briefs/eu-china-summit-eu-us-summit.
[ii] “EU-China – A Strategic Outlook” (European Commission, December 3, 2023), https://commission.europa.eu/system/files/2019-03/communication-eu-china-a-strategic-outlook.pdf.
[iii] “Speech by President-Elect von Der Leyen in the European Parliament Plenary on the Occasion of the Presentation of Her College of Commissioners and Their Programme” (European Commission, November 27, 2019), https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/speech_19_6408.
[iv] Josep Borrell, “The Sinatra Doctrine. How the EU Should Deal with the US–China Competition” (Rome: Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), September 24, 2020), https://www.iai.it/sites/default/files/iaip2024.pdf.
[v] Wilhelmine Preussen, “EU Takes China to WTO over Lithuania,” POLITICO, December 7, 2023, https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-seeks-2-wto-panels-for-chinas-discriminatory-trade-policies/.
[vi] Manon Boscher, “Emmanuel Macrons Visit To China Illusory Results,” Casimir Pulaski Foundation, April 12, 2023, https://pulaski.pl/pulaski-commentary-emmanuel-macrons-visit-to-china-illusory-results/.
[vii] Bernhard Bartsch and Claudia Wessling, “Executive Summary: From a China Strategy to No Strategy at All – Exploring the Diversity of European Approaches” (MERICS, July 27, 2023), https://merics.org/en/executive-summary-china-strategy-no-strategy-all-exploring-diversity-european-approaches.
[viii] Central and Eastern Europe as a New Center of Gravity.” (Warsaw: Casimir Pulaski Foundation, 2023), 39–45, https://warsawsecurityforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/WSF2023_raport_20-09_WEB.pdf.
[ix] Claudia Chiappa and Emmanuel Ngendakumana, “‘Everything Indicates’ Chinese Ship Damaged Baltic Pipeline on Purpose, Finland Says,” POLITICO, December 1, 2023, https://www.politico.eu/article/balticconnector-damage-likely-to-be-intentional-finnish-minister-says-china-estonia/.
[x] “China Warns Estonia on Taiwan Ties as Baltic Tension Simmers,” Bloomberg News, December 8, 2023, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-11-08/china-warns-estonia-over-taiwan-as-ties-in-baltic-region-deepen.