English Articles
Why Europe needs to repair ties with China
Ding Heng
Monday 26th of February 2024

Between China and Europe, cooperation should be the mainstream tone, despite their differences and disagreements. This is one of the main messages Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi tried to convey during his latest trip to Europe, including his attendance at the annual Munich Security Conference.
On the diplomatic level, the European Union and China have been comprehensive strategic partners for more than 20 years. Due to various factors, however, there have been attempts from within and outside Europe to turn this partnership into a relationship featuring unhealthy rivalry and confrontation. During the Covid-19 pandemic when in-person diplomacy was difficult, those attempts inflicted perceivable damages to the ties. In China’s view, it’s time to reverse that trend. For Europe, repairing ties with China is in its best interests.
First of all, China’s economic significance for Europe is self-evident. China is the EU’s largest trading partner, purchasing 9% of the bloc’s goods exports in 2023. In the case of some European companies such as automakers, their huge existing stakes in the Chinese market are well-known stories. China’s decision last year to implement a visa-free policy for travelers from the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain is a signal that the country is looking to provide more opportunities for European investors.
Europe’s economy is facing continued stagnation. According to official figures, that is the case in both the eurozone and the wider EU. Germany, the EU’s largest economy, has just slashed its growth forecast, saying it is in “troubled waters”. Under such circumstances, it would be a fatal mistake if Europe moved to weaken its economic ties with China in the name of reducing risks. If anything, a noticeable risk for Europe right now is its economic sluggishness, which has caused a range of problems such as the farmers’ protests spreading across many European countries.
Frankly, the stated idea behind the “de-risk” rhetoric – lessening reliance on China in critical sectors while maintaining other businesses with the country – sounds just too simplistic. In a globalized era when different economies and industries are often interconnected, it’s virtually implausible to single out one economy or industry to locate all the risks. Any attempt in that direction might well end up becoming a costly “de-coupling” campaign. Disconnecting from the Chinese economy would impose a sixfold greater cost on Germany than Brexit, according to a 2022 study by the Munich-based Ifo Institute.
Instead, probably the best way to “de-risk” is to prevent ideological differences and the so-called national security concerns from hindering normal business operations. That appears to be a bigger source of uncertainties for multinationals nowadays. In the case of the EU, it was certainly a miscalculation when it put on hold a bilateral investment deal with China in 2021 due to a row about human rights. Volkswagen and BASF are quite happy with their operations in Xinjiang, so using misinformation about the Western Chinese region to force them to divest themselves from their local businesses would ultimately harm European corporate interests.
On the Ukraine crisis, it is a fundamental misperception that China supports Russia. China’s close ties with Russia are bilateral, meaning they don’t target a third party. It’s also unrealistic – even irresponsible – to expect China to bring an end to what is essentially a European war. Considering the root cause of the conflict, its long-term political settlement will arguably depend on how Europe will accommodate Russia in its future security architecture, as well as to what extent NATO could learn from its past mistakes. These fundamental issues have nothing to do with China. In terms of creating conditions for mediating a ceasefire, there might be some room for Europe-China cooperation, but that would require Europe to maintain a workable relationship with China. It’s certainly not helpful when the EU slaps sanctions on Chinese companies for alleged war links.
Driven by its own strategic calculation, the United States is eager for Europe to take a more aggressive stance against China on issues ranging from trade to geopolitics. Before European policymakers ponder whether they should align with the US, they need to think about another question: Is the US still a reliable partner of Europe?
There is no doubt that the transatlantic relationship soured significantly when Donald Trump was in office. Joe Biden has made some nice gestures about US-Europe solidarity, but on the other hand, many of his policies are “America first” in nature. It’s no secret that Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act has lured investments to the US at Europe’s cost. And now, Europe is faced with the likely prospect of Trump making a comeback in the US presidential race in November. A deep worry is palpable, with Trump’s recent NATO comment stoking plenty of jitter across European capitals. Regardless of who will be the next US president, it is questionable whether an era of a strong transatlantic relationship will ever come back.
In contrast, stability is a major strength in China’s policymaking mechanism. China views Europe as a key player in a multipolar world. China pursues a relationship with Europe that neither targets any third party nor is subject to interference by any third party. These mentalities have remained unchanged for a long time. In fact, that China pursues a stable EU policy is a point that President Xi Jinping made in person in an April 2023 meeting with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron. Around two weeks after the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out, Wang Yi made it clear in a high-profile press conference that the war wouldn’t change how China views its ties with Europe.
Therefore, there is no reason why Europe should take a more hawkish line against a partner that is a source of stability simply because doing so is the wish of a traditional ally that is no longer so reliable. This should be an awareness held by any European politician with a real sense of “strategic autonomy”.
Last but not least, the word “value” is sometimes used as a tool when a country attempts to seek support – real or rhetorical – from others in taking unfriendly moves against the countries it doesn’t like. The Biden administration’s so-called “value-based diplomacy” is a good example. In reality, however, there are shared values between most countries. It is no exception between China and Europe. For instance, both have benefited from free trade.
The “Cold-war mentality” is something that China constantly warns against on the international stage. Judging from surveys by the European Council on Foreign Relations, there are many more average Europeans who want to stay out of the new Cold War than those who don’t. A stable relationship with China could help Europe better defend those shared values when they are under threat.