EU-China Relations and the War in Ukraine: A Reappraisal
One year after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Chinese scholars assess its impact on EU-China relations and take a look at the future.
Last week, Sinification examined a piece by Zhang Jian that discussed the economic and political impact of the Russo-Ukrainian war on the EU. Its assessment was particularly bleak (I have included a summary of his piece at the end of this post). EU-China relations were written all over Zhang’s analysis of European strategic autonomy but he refrained from discussing these ties in direct terms. Today’s edition provides a brief rundown of four commentaries that complement Zhang’s piece well. They were chosen on the basis of two relatively loose criteria: having been recently published (≤ 2-3 months); and providing a fairly comprehensive overview of the recent and future trends in EU-China relations and/or European strategic autonomy. As one might expect, EU-China relations do not attract as many heavyweight scholars as the analysis of US-China relations does. What’s more, recent analyses by some of China’s more senior EU specialists have tended to remain fairly superficial. I have nevertheless included those views that I did come across in the “key takeaways” section provided below. Much like Sinification’s coverage of the US-China spy balloon incident, I have proceeded by using bullet-point summaries of these articles rather than translations. Your feedback on this new format was much appreciated last time and will be again today. So if you find these summarised overviews helpful, please do let me know by liking this post, leaving a comment or by getting in touch with me as you did last time. Similar overviews on different topics will follow if I sense that this is something that is both useful and enjoyable for everyone to read. Translations will of course remain the core focus of this newsletter.
The war in Ukraine has hobbled the EU’s push for strategic autonomy, but its desire to pursue this goal remains.
The war has increased the EU’s dependence on and tilt towards the US. This trend is largely expected to continue.
The war has accelerated the EU’s shift of emphasis to “competitor” and “rival” in its triadic “partner-competitor-rival” positioning on China.
Beijing’s stance in the Russo-Ukrainian war has been misunderstood and has contributed to Europe’s growing antagonism towards Beijing.
The influence of pro-US (and China-sceptic) countries in central, eastern and northern Europe over EU decision-making has increased considerably over the past year. This is not good for EU-China relations.
The EU is beset with economic, political and social problems and the situation continues only to get worse. This is detrimental to the EU’s pursuit of strategic autonomy.
The bloc remains a key player in international relations but its strength and influence are declining when compared with other major powers, notably the US and China.
Nevertheless, the EU is often seen as key to alleviating the diplomatic and economic pressure brought by the US on China.
Areas of cooperation with Europe still exist: global governance, climate change and economic cooperation tend to be the most frequently cited.
Past and upcoming visits to Beijing by European leaders signal that Europe still wants (or needs) to strengthen economic ties and engage with Beijing even if this means going against US wishes.
The EU’s economy is in the doldrums. Deepening economic ties will continue to be one of the keys to fostering closer relations with the EU and its members states. But the pull of the Chinese market will not prevent the EU from reducing its dependence on China in certain areas. Nor will it prevent the EU’s continued “interference” in and around the Indo-Pacific.
Transatlantic ties may have strengthened over the past year but rifts remain and could widen again in future. EU-US economic competition and European distrust of Washington should encourage the EU in its pursuit of strategic autonomy and prevent it from tilting too far towards the US (see also Xin Hua).
France and Germany remain the two key “pragmatic” countries that China should continue to engage with, though they have less sway over the EU than they used to. France continues to be seen as the country most aligned with China’s hope for a more independent EU.
Germany’s forthcoming China strategy will act as a bellwether of EU-China relations.
Outlook for 2023: Uncertainty prevails. Assessments range from the pessimistic to the cautiously optimistic but adding a positive twist to such predictions is often de rigueur in China.
Author: Jian Junbo (简军波) – Deputy director of the Centre for China-Europe Relations, Fudan University.
Background: Academic. Focus: EU/EU-China relations. PhD Fudan University (2006).
Published: January 2023
Source: The Paper
“Despite the real need and potential for cooperation, China-EU relations may nevertheless encounter important challenges in 2023. Amidst a number of intractable structural differences, the development of bilateral relations could suffer major setbacks both in terms of geopolitical conflicts and at the level of economic relations.”
1. Strategic autonomy:
Benefits the development of EU-China relations by freeing the EU from the influence of “third parties” (i.e. the US).
In line with China’s desire for a multipolar world order.
Has a strong anti-China element to it:
Quote: “Although European strategic autonomy forms to some extent the basis for China-EU strategic cooperation, it is nevertheless a double-edged sword for China-EU relations and is to a certain extent an important causal factor in the conflict over values between China and Europe. Within Europe's strategic autonomy, safeguarding Europe's vision of a self-proclaimed ‘rules-based and liberal’ international order, upholding the authoritativeness of European norms and consolidating the transatlantic ‘values’ alliance are its major concerns. Against this backdrop, the inevitable clash of values between the two powers that are China and Europe, which adhere to different social systems, ideologies and civilisational ideals, is bound to occur in the context of the above-mentioned EU perspective and will manifest itself through concrete confrontational incidents.” [Comment: It is common for Chinese scholars to use “EU” and “Europe” interchangeably]
The EU’s desire for greater strategic autonomy is still present. However, the war in Ukraine has had a negative impact on its development.
2. EU-China – Prospects for 2023:
The EU’s recent tilt towards Washington will remain and EU-China relations may suffer.
Quote 1: “As the conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues, Europe's negative feelings towards China caused by the differences in stance taken by both sides in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict will accumulate and develop into specific policies and actions towards China. This will include a certain amount of cooperation with the US in its efforts to suppress China. However, strategically speaking, Europe will not develop its own independent policies to contain China.”
Quote 2: “The difference in stance taken by the EU and China on the Russia-Ukraine issue has led to a growing distrust of China and, to a certain extent, to a closer alignment with the US's position on China.” (from a different article)
Europe is too weak to jeopardise its economic ties with China. The pull of the Chinese market will remain. However, the EU’s decoupling from China in certain areas is expected to continue.
The EU and its member states may strengthen their relations with Taiwan, Japan and other Indo-Pacific countries, and may continue to interfere in China’s “internal affairs”.
Potential areas of cooperation still abound.
Against the backdrop of Sino-US rivalry, Beijing should place its relations with Europe as one of its top foreign policy priorities.
Despite their increasing closeness, China should make sure not to equate Europe with the US.
Beijing should do its upmost to ease tensions and not provoke conflicts with actors at all levels in Europe (不主动激发矛盾) on condition that China’s core national interests are not at stake.
China should consider focusing its efforts both on those member states that are “friendlier” (更为友好) towards China and on those countries that have a considerable impact on Sino-European relations (e.g. France, Germany and members of the Visegrad Group).
When China’s core interests are involved, China should be ready to fight back by adopting countermeasures at the economic and diplomatic levels.
Author: Yan Shaohua (严少华) – Junior research associate at the Centre for China-Europe Relations, Fudan University.
Background: Academic. Focus: EU/EU-China relations. PhD University of Hong Kong (2017).
Published: February 2023
Source: 1. Lead article in Fudan’s yearly “Report on European policies towards China”; 2. “EU policies towards major countries and regions”
“As the Ukrainian crisis continues and deepens, the Russian factor may overtake the US as the most important external factor influencing the EU's policy towards China … Looking ahead to 2023, the EU's China policy is expected to maintain the re-stabilising dynamic seen at the end of 2022. Re-engagement based on new foundations could become a realistic consideration for the EU's policy towards China. Thus, a new window of opportunity for China-EU relations could emerge in 2023, but engagement itself does not mean that China-EU relations will return to the 'business as usual' state of the past.”
1. Impact of the war in Ukraine on EU-China relations:
The EU has misinterpreted China’s stance as "pro-Russia neutrality" and now views Beijing as being closer to Russia than it used to. As a result:
Brussels has put greater emphasis on the “competitor” and “rival” components of its triadic “partner-competitor-rival” approach to China.
The EU has tilted further towards Washington in the context of US-China rivalry.
The “Russian factor” has become the key to shaping China-EU relations (俄罗斯因素成为左右中欧关系的关键).
Economically, the war has:
Increased Europe’s need to both stabilise and develop economic relations with Beijing.
Exacerbated European worries about economic over-dependence on China.
Sino-Russian cooperation has increased the perceived security threat that China may pose to Europe and Taiwan.
The influence of China-sceptic and pro-US Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries in EU decision-making has risen.
The EU’s dependence on the US has deepened; transatlantic coordination on a wide range of issues (incl. China) has increased; and EU strategic autonomy has been stifled (战略自主性受到压制).
2. EU-China – Prospects for 2023:
Economic difficulties in Europe are expected to encourage closer economic cooperation with China but the EU’s shoring up of its supply chains will continue.
The EU’s re-engagement with China over the last few months of 2022 is expected to be maintained with the upcoming visits of other European leaders to Beijing. A “new window of opportunity” for China-EU relations could yet emerge but “business as usual” is no longer to be expected.
Ideological differences, US pressure, the war in Ukraine, the Swedish presidency of the EU and human rights concerns are just some of the issues that may yet constrain the scope of such political engagement.
In the run-up to the 2024 US presidential elections and European parliamentary elections, transatlantic ties and cooperation could well deepen even further but disagreements on a number of issues (e.g. Inflation Reduction Act and LNG prices) remain latent and may yet resurface.
Author: Long Jing (龙静) – Deputy director of the Centre for European Studies, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS)
Background: Researcher. Focus: EU/EU-China relations. PhD East China Normal University (2008).
Published: February 2023
Source: 1. Edited transcript of a speech; 2. Article in Fudan’s yearly “EU policies towards major countries and regions”.
“Should the EU's expectations of Chinese mediation in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict be dashed, its desire for faster access to the Chinese market for European goods and services (including vaccines) fail to be met, and the trade deficit problem not be alleviated, the EU's China policy will probably harden once again.”
1. EU-China relations in 2022:
On the surface, engagement with the EU has been increasing but in reality the EU and its member states have become “even more entrenched in their misunderstanding of and prejudice against China”. This includes:
Seeing China as being part of the autocratic camp [专制阵营].
Seeing China as using the war in Ukraine to its own advantage [渔翁得利者].
Such “misconceptions” have led the EU’s policy towards China to be increasingly geared towards “protection, exclusion and containment” [防华、排华、遏华]:
Protection: NATO labelling China as a "systemic challenge to Euro-Atlantic security"
Exclusion: Partial decoupling and shoring up of supply chains.
Containment: Strengthening ties with Taiwan, Japan and countries in the Indo-Pacific.
The influence of China-sceptic countries in central, eastern and northern Europe on the EU’s China policy has increased at the expense of France and Germany’s.
Conflicting views on China among EU institutions, politicians and member states are complicating EU-China relations.
Stabilising economic relations with China has become a priority for a weakened EU.
2. Prospects for 2023:
EU-China relations will be marked by uncertainty.
The EU and the US will continue to coordinate their policies towards China despite economic frictions. However, the EU will not completely side with the US and will continue to seek to distinguish its policies from those being formulated in Washington.
The impact of “values” on EU-China ties will continue to increase. This could lead to renewed tensions and to the indefinite shelving of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI).
The EU’s desire to cooperate with China will decline. While the need for cooperation in many areas will remain, more emphasis will be placed on economic competition and systemic rivalry with Beijing. (N.B. There is greater emphasis on the EU’s desire to engage with China in Long’s piece for Fudan than there is in the edited transcript of her speech).
Author: Yang Na (杨娜) – Deputy Director of the Centre for European Studies, Nankai University
Background: Academic. Focus: Europe and global governance. PhD Nankai University (2010).
Published: February 2023
Source: People's Tribune
“The future development of the EU's strategic autonomy may be constrained by the lack of power of its key member states, the instability in its neighbourhood and the restrictions imposed by the US’s establishment of a Western technological alliance. However, its specific attributes and resilience determine that the EU remains an important global actor and will continue to play a key role in global governance and world affairs.”
EU strategic autonomy (prospects):
Power disparity: The EU’s global power is waning and has been since the 2008 financial crisis. The growing disparity in economic, military and technological power with the US is threatening to further increase the EU's dependence on Washington.
Internal divisions: The split between CEE countries on the one hand and Germany and France on the other has widened on a number of foreign-policy-related issues.
Security and defence: The war in Ukraine has increased the EU’s dependence on the US/NATO. Short-term prospects remain particularly unpromising. France alone will not be able to push the EU’s defence autonomy forward. Germany fears antagonising the US, while other member states prefer to rely on NATO or may not want to cede more sovereignty to Brussels.
Science and technology: The EU-US Trade and Technology Council and other US-led tech alliances across the world are not only severely constraining the EU’s technological autonomy but also forcing it to side with the US in its tech war with China.
Transatlantic fissures: Distrust of Washington remains.
The EU’s quest for strategic autonomy continues:
Quote 1: “In its external relations, and despite the aforementioned challenges to its pursuit of strategic autonomy, the EU possesses exceptional integrative powers and adaptability. It [now] combines normative soft power with hard power and, without undermining its special relationship with the United States, is developing a global strategy distinct from that of the United States, based on its own interests and viewpoints. It is continuing to act as a leader in specific areas of global governance, as a “balancer” [平衡者] in the context of great power relations and as a stabiliser of regional events.”
Quote 2: “In the current international context, the EU is trying hard to step out of the confines of strategic competition between the major powers and to avoid, as far as possible, making either/or choices [非此即彼的抉择]. However, on certain important or topical issues, being tied to the US has meant being forced to face the dilemma over which side to choose. Policies towards China are [now] the focus of transatlantic relations. [However,] the EU is committed to developing a policy towards China that is different from that of the United States, from the standpoint of safeguarding its overall security and economic interests.”
Author: Zhang Jian (张健) – Director of the Institute of European Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR)
Background: Long-time CICIR analyst. Focus: Europe and EU-China relations. PhD Wuhan University (2003).
Published: December 2022 / February 2023
Source: 1 and 2
“As long as the crisis in Ukraine continues and the confrontation between Europe and Russia remains unchanged, the hard-line policies of the CEE and Nordic countries will remain the prevailing EU policy towards Russia. The US and NATO will therefore continue to guide the EU’s foreign and security policies, thus making it difficult for the EU's idea of strategic autonomy to become the mainstream … [The Ukraine crisis] will further weaken the EU's strength and international influence and accelerate its marginalisation in the global geopolitical landscape.”
1. On the EU’s economy:
Prospects are bleak, de-industrialisation is set to continue and protectionist policies are expected to increase.
Germany’s economic woes and their potential spill-over effect on the eurozone are particularly worrying.
Debt levels within the EU are rising and are becoming increasingly unsustainable.
2. On the EU’s strategic autonomy:
Dependence on the US (militarily, economically and with regards to energy) has increased and will probably continue to increase for the foreseeable future.
“Strategic autonomy” is no longer a buzzword in Brussels.
The emergence of a third pole within the EU consisting of pro-US countries from eastern and northern Europe will continue to hamper the EU’s quest for strategic autonomy.
3. On EU integration:
Economic tensions between northern and southern European countries combined with political tensions between eastern and western European countries are set to increase.
Such rifts, economic difficulties, rising populism and a weakened Franco-German tandem are weakening cohesion among member states and hindering further integration.
With a weaker economy, Germany is expected to become more focused on its own national interests and less willing to support France in its efforts to reform the EU.
4. On the EU internationally:
The EU’s image and influence are declining.
The EU is losing its balancing role in international affairs and risks becoming a mere follower of US policies.
Geopolitically, the EU and its member states are set to remain focused on their neighbourhood and their ability to project power globally will continue to decline. This also applies to the Indo-Pacific which is increasingly becoming a mere “bargaining chip” for the EU in its relationship with the US.
For an overview of reactions to both German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and European Council President Charles Michel’s recent visits to Beijing, see here:
Note the difference in how Jian views EU strategic autonomy and Zhang Jian’s definition of it as simply “breaking away from US control and gaining the power to make strategic decisions on its own.”