China once saw Europe as a counterweight to American power. Now the links are at their lowest

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Eight years later, the optimism of that period has crumbled, with relations between China and the European Union reaching what analysts call a decades-long low point.
European concern about China’s global ambitions and human rights record, US-China tensions, reciprocal sanctions and, now, Russia’s war in Ukraine – which Beijing seems to have under – estimated or discounted the impact on China-EU relations – have all brought their relations to a low point.

The shift is the culmination of a series of steps in which Beijing may have at times underestimated how much it was pushing back on Europe, but also seemed willing to pay the price.

But it’s a blow to Beijing’s ideal vision: a Europe with strong ties to China that balances US power and posture.

“China and the EU should act as two major forces to uphold world peace and offset uncertainties in the international landscape,” Xi told European leaders at a summit in April, urging them to reject “the bloc mentality. rival”.

But those words seemed to fall flat with the European side, which instead focused on pressuring China to help broker peace in Ukraine. “The dialogue was anything but a dialogue. In any case, it was a dialogue of the deaf,” EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said afterwards.

Downward spiral

Beijing had carefully crafted its relationship in Europe over the past decades – creating a dedicated annual summit with Central and Eastern European countries and seeking breakthroughs for its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, which has won support from a member of the G7 when Italy signed in 2019.

US concerns about collaboration risks with China found an echo in Europe. And European nations themselves watched as Xi’s China increasingly asserted itself in its foreign policy, from the combative tone of its “wolf warrior” diplomats to the establishment of a naval base in Africa, to the growing aggressiveness in the South China Sea and towards Taiwan, and targeting it at companies or countries that have bucked its line on hot-button issues.
Allegations of major human rights abuses in China’s northwest Xinjiang region and its dismantling of civil society in Hong Kong have also played a role in shifting European perceptions, according to the analysts. Chinese authorities have called allegations that it held more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in internment camps in Xinjiang a “fabrication”, and criticized discussing the issues as “interference “in its internal affairs.

The EU declared China a “systemic rival” in 2019 and ties have continued to fray ever since.

“China is now asking the rest of the world to pay tribute and recognize the positions taken by China, without worrying too much about what others may think,” said Steve Tsang, director of the University’s SOAS China Institute. from London.

This approach has caused Western democracies “to abandon the decades-long policy of helping China modernize and develop in the hope that greater economic integration will encourage China to become a responsible player in world affairs. said Tsang.

Economic benefit

China was the third-biggest export market for European goods and the biggest source of goods entering Europe last year, but friction has weighed on economic relations between the EU and Beijing.

Earlier this year, a dispute between China and Lithuania prompted the EU to file a complaint with the WTO. He accused Beijing of “discriminatory trade practices against Lithuania” in retaliation for what Beijing sees as a violation by the Baltic state of its “One China” principle, by which it claims Taiwan’s autonomy as its sovereign territory.

The biggest financial loss was the long-awaited trade deal between the EU and China, which stalled last year after being caught in the crossfire in a sanctions swap. Beijing has imposed sanctions on EU lawmakers and bodies, European think tanks and independent scholars after the EU sanctioned four Chinese officials for alleged abuses in Xinjiang.

But the damage was greater than just the deal.

“This overreaction (from Beijing) was not a wise move,” said Ingrid d’Hooghe, associate researcher at Dutch think tank Clingendael, pointing to the detrimental effect on public opinion.

“China’s strategy towards Europe was unraveling and it apparently failed to realize that all of these actions – the overly reactive sanctions, the coercive diplomacy – ultimately worked against China’s diplomatic goals… and also brought Europe closer to the United States,” she said.

While these actions may have pushed a shift in European thinking with clear economic consequences, they added up for Beijing’s foreign ministry, according to Henry Gao, a professor at the Yong Pung How School of Law at the University of Singapore management.

“For them, the cold relationship is a necessary prize and it’s more important to make political arguments,” he said.

Blind spot?

It is China’s latest calculations on how to respond to Russia’s war in Ukraine that could prove the most costly for European relations.

As European countries and the United States united in support of Ukraine, China refused to condemn the war, instead strengthening its relations with Russia and joining the Kremlin in pointing the finger at the United States and the NATO.

According to Li Mingjiang, associate professor and provost chair in international relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, there were leading political analysts in China who understood the consequences. negative effects that China’s position would have on its European relations. But that assessment may have been “underestimated” by policymakers, Li said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Brazil in 2019.
Calculations about the geopolitical significance of ties with Russia, as well as Xi’s close connection to Russian President Vladimir Putin, also likely paid off, he added.

“It’s a really huge dilemma for China…and they couldn’t afford major negative consequences on the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. This imperative really prevailed,” Li said.

There has been recognition of China’s myopia among mainland scholars,

Chen Dingding, founding director of the Intellisia Institute think tank in Guangzhou, wrote in a co-authored article in The Diplomat, that the risks of war in Ukraine are “not fully understood in China”, where officials and scholars have failed to recognize the “shock” that death and destruction in Ukraine would bring to Europeans.

“The geographic and emotional proximity of war will fundamentally change European sentiments toward common security, economic dependencies, and national sovereignty for years to come,” wrote Chen and his international group of co-authors.

However, strong voices in many countries continue to advocate a balanced approach to China, according to d’Hooghe. The future may not bring decoupling, she said, but rather a recalibration within Europe of how to engage with China while keeping an eye on security and balance. .

“But at the moment – and this is also true with the European relationship with Russia – normative considerations seem to outweigh economic interests,” she said.

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