Whither EU-China Relations?
The EU and China have "diametrically opposed ways of thinking about their bilateral relations ... both sides may need to take a step back from their respective approaches." – Fudan Prof. Jian Junbo
Hello from Shanghai,
Last week, Sinification looked at how the EU’s and the US’s new “de-risking” slogan was being interpreted in China. Today’s edition continues with this theme and focuses on a new instalment of Fudan University’s China-Europe Watch assessing the implications for EU-China relations of the European Council’s “conclusions on China” dated June 30. Although the softening in tone of these “conclusions" when compared with the Commission’s recent pronouncements on China is acknowledged, the scholars cited below remain well aware that the EU’s growing emphasis on its competition and systemic rivalry with China is probably here to stay. The question then becomes, how does one move forward from here? How can both sides preserve sufficient space for the cooperative elements in their relationship? And, of course, how to prevent the EU from aligning itself too closely with the US’s China policy? These scholars believe that both sides need to rethink their approaches to one another and provide a few suggestions in this regard.
Thank you to Fudan University’s Centre for China-Europe Relations for allowing Sinification to share these excerpts.
Jian Junbo (简军波) – Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the Centre for China-Europe Relations, Fudan University:
“The difference in the way China and the EU present their policies towards one another – with the EU emphasising differences and conflicts, and China emphasising similarities and cooperation – reflects diametrically opposed ways of thinking about their bilateral relations: China hopes to reduce the risk of conflict [冲突] by looking for space for cooperation through a search for common ground while retaining differences [求同存异]; while the European side hopes that by facing problems squarely, it will find opportunities for their resolution, which will then lay the groundwork for potential cooperation. Faced with this difference, both sides may need to take a step back from their respective approaches and find a real common denominator so as to stabilise and continue to promote the development of China-EU relations. In other words, at the same time as it underlines its differences [with China], the EU should attach importance to the space for cooperation between both sides. As for China, it could respond appropriately to the EU's emphasis on differences, particularly in view of the fact that the international landscape is undergoing major changes [Note: By ‘changes’ Jian is referring to US-China rivalry and tensions as well as the general instability of the world that his country is now facing]. In order to adapt to these dramatic changes, we could adjust the wording of our policies towards the EU in an appropriate manner and [find a] suitable way to look [more] squarely at the differences and contradictions between both sides.”
“When it comes to [taking] concrete actions in our policy towards the EU, there are two areas that we could work on:”
“First, there is something to be done when dealing with the EU’s ‘de-risking’ [policy]. ‘De-risking’ is a deliberate strategy by the EU to blur its policy towards China in order to maintain both flexibility and the initiative when managing its relations with China. In this regard, it will be difficult for the EU to meet our demand that the boundaries of its de-risking [policy] be clarified (i.e., [having] a clear ‘negative list’ in our bilateral relations), and there is also no room for bilateral discussions [on this matter]. However, if we were to focus on the area of [EU-China] cooperation, both sides could, through negotiation and coordination, establish a ‘positive list’ [for such] cooperation. This would [help] prepare us to withstand the uncertainty brought about by the EU's ‘de-risking’ policy.”
“Second, we could make more specific proposals on how to support European ‘strategic autonomy’. This is not an easy task since European ‘strategic autonomy’ [also] implies counterbalancing China (as in the case of its Indo-Pacific strategy) and it is obvious that our support for European strategic autonomy cannot include this [aspect]. That being said, the EU is not interested in our support for its autonomy [if merely viewed] as a means of counterbalancing the United States. Thus our overemphasis on its anti-US dimension will ultimately cause the EU to reject our support, [thereby] losing [even] more room for cooperation. Therefore, our support for European strategic autonomy can begin in areas that are not strongly associated with the United States and China. By doing so [we will] eventually help them achieve their independence and autonomy, [and thus help them] become a counterbalancing pole of power to the United States. To this end, we could support the EU's strategic autonomy in a number of areas, such as multilateralism, the digital [economy], global governance, setting standards and so on, and by doing so expand the depth and breadth of our bilateral cooperation [with the EU].”
“Looking ahead, [we can] remain cautiously optimistic about China-EU relations. During the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, Europe has been extremely afraid that China might form an alliance with Russia. Thus, it will not be adopting extreme policies that [might] overly provoke China, so as not to push China completely towards Russia. [But] once the Russo-Ukrainian conflict is over, and regardless of the outcome for Russia, the EU (and Europe [in general]) will not fall apart and will become bolder in adopting [more] radical policies towards China, as it will no longer be worried about China's stance towards Russia. However, as China-EU cooperation at the level of trade and international governance remains indispensable, the future of China-EU relations is set for a highly complex and bumpy ride.”
Yan Shaohua (严少华) – Assistant Professor, Centre for China-Europe Relations, Fudan University:
“Since the beginning of the year, diplomatic relations between China and the EU have continued to stabilise and high-level exchanges have been strengthened significantly. At the same time, the EU has been engaged in a heated discussion over the need or not to ‘reshape’ its relations with China. As represented by French President Emmanuel Macron's idea of ‘strategic autonomy’ and European Commission President Von der Leyen's ‘de-risking’ argument, there are different visions within the EU when it comes to the issue of ‘reshaping’ [the bloc’s] China policy.”
“The resolution pertaining to [the EU’s] China policy that was adopted during the European [Council] summit at the end of June has [now] ‘set the tone’ for the bloc’s relations with China.”
“Compared with von der Leyen's speech on China-EU relations in April and the EU's newly launched Economic Security Strategy, the China-related wording contained in the European Council's resolution has clearly been softened [缓和] … [However,] von der Leyen's ‘de-risking’ concept has also gained greater acceptance within the EU.”
“The EU's current ‘triadic’ positioning towards China was formulated mainly from its own perspective. It has set various conditions for its cooperation, competition and rivalry with China, and has not left our country with much room to negotiate and speak [话语权]. Even at the cooperation level, what is most often reflected are the EU's demands and the influence of political factors within the EU. China's demands for cooperation have not received sufficient attention nor been sufficiently taken into account. If the EU's ‘triadic’ positioning on China is to be implemented and sustained in the long run, it still needs to be recognised by China and reasonably reflect our country’s agenda on cooperation.”
Yuan Hang (原航) – Associate Professor at the School of International Relations and Deputy Director of the Centre for Polish and Central and Eastern European Studies, Sichuan University:
“Judging from the nature of the [EU’s] characterisation of China as a partner, competitor and rival, this would be akin to [our] being ‘neither friends nor foes’ and ‘both enemies and friends’ [似乎是非敌非友、又敌又友]. In international relations this type of positioning is usually unstable and of a transitional nature. Ultimately, which direction this will take will depend on which of the three dimensions in this trichotomy will end up predominating [占了上风]. This will be determined by a combination of both internal dynamics within the EU [欧盟内部博弈] and international factors – in particular, the influence of the United States.”
“There is a phenomenon worth paying attention to: when the EU discusses its policy towards China, it increasingly emphasises the differences and contradictions between the two sides [i.e. China and the EU], and does not talk much about cooperation. At least, that is the general tone [of these discussions].”
“Regarding the adjustment of China's policy towards the EU, overall it seems that we could consider transforming [our] top-down approach [从上而下路径] into a bottom-up one. That is to say, water down [our] top-level designs and strategic planning [淡化顶层设计和战略规划], lower [our] strategic expectations, and turn to pragmatism, be results-oriented, letting market mechanisms and actors play their due roles.”
“In the face of the EU's trichotomy [i.e. regarding China as a partner, competitor and rival], China may wish to draw on a common practice in the EU, namely ‘issue linkage’. By linking issues from different areas, this type of practice allows an issue that could easily be in the process of being both overlooked and left unresolved in one particular area to be brought to our attention, and thus be addressed to some extent. For instance, where one party seeks the cooperation of the other in the field of climate change, the other party [might] propose to link this to a relevant issue such as the advancement of trade-related or economic negotiations in a particular area, thereby helping remove the obstacles or difficulties that these negotiations were originally facing.”
“Overall, the EU's gradual emphasis in recent years on the geopolitical dimension [of international relations] is related to the ‘geopolitical commission’ that [European] Commission President von der Leyen underlined after she came to power. In other words, [the aim was for] the EU to become a stronger geopolitical actor. This technocratic body that is the Commission has been increasingly emphasising its political standpoints and seems to be pushing EU institutions away from their original balanced stance on China towards a more politicised one. In its triadic characterisation [of the PRC], the competitor and systemic rival aspects are set to be even more emphasised.”
“One result of this has been the ‘de-risking’ path recently put forward by the European Commission with regards to China. First, this slogan has been echoed by the United States and seems to be on the verge of becoming ‘politically correct’ in the West. Once this direction is established, ‘de-risking’ may become a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, shaping to a great extent the stances of the European Union and the United States on China. Second, this is also a contest over the power [to shape] global [public] discourse [国际话语权的博弈], which is related to Europe’s normative power. By labelling China as a ‘risk’ and holding the right to define and explain this term, the EU is in fact constructing a type of ‘political correctness’ that it hopes [to impose] and that not only provides legitimacy for the EU's policy adjustments towards China, but also exerts so-called ‘normative’ pressure on the construction of China's international image.”
“In future, China-EU relations as a whole will probably be in a state of ‘cold politics and hot economics’, with politics and economics operating relatively independently on two [separate] tracks. First, in the area of low-end industries, economic relations will continue to be maintained. This is the most basic [form of] economic interdependence, [though] in the areas of high tech and key strategic industries, the EU may converge towards the US’s stance on China. Second, economic interdependence is unlikely to have an impact on political relations. Conversely, it will be difficult for political relations to have an impact on the most basic economic interdependence. The adaptability of the assessment that ‘economic relations are the ballast’ has been verified over recent decades. However, this will probably be increasingly challenged in the future.