EU-China Summit: red carpet or red alert?

The only way the EU can secure its place as a geopolitical interlocutor is to understand when and how to cooperate with China, even if it requires swallowing its pride.

As the 7-8 December EU-China Summut approaches, all eyes will be on whether China will roll out the red carpet for the presidents of two of the European Union’s main institutions, or whether their welcome to Beijing will be a more subdued one. Should it turn out to be the latter, China’s message to the EU would be crystal clear. This is the first Summit in this format to be held between the two sides in four years.

In Bejing, European Council chief Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are expected to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese Premier Li Qiang. The timing of the meeting could not have come at a more opportune moment as it will be held right after the Biden-Xi meeting in the US. Everything indicates that, once again, the EU and China will not be issuing a joint statement at the end of the Summit, opting instead for separate statements.

The EU’s relationship with China is based on three pillars: rivalry, competition, and partnership. The EU’s intensified cooperation with the US in the wake of the Ukraine conflict has amplified the rivalry dimension of the EU-China relationship. Even before that happened, the EU’s economic and security strategy, with its emphasis on decoupling from China, had added another layer of complexity to an already strained relationship.

China’s ‘no limits partnership’ with Russia before the invasion of Ukraine caused consternation in Brussels. However, while China has maintained neutrality on the conflict in Ukraine, the West was adamant in pushing a hawkish narrative against China – that is, until the Biden-Xi meeting, when the narrative suddenly changed. It appears, however, that the EU either did not comprehend the Russia/China dynamics or blindly followed the US in bashing China in order to retain the US’ support for Ukraine. This position is unsustainable, and the EU risks being left out in the cold should international geo-political dynamics continue to shift.

Understanding the Russia/China dynamics

Few have attempted to understand the Russia/China dynamics, yet a decent understanding of their shared history would immediately provide the answers to this conundrum. During the Cold War, both countries were led by Communist parties, and Mao Zedong followed a Stalinist line. Stalin’s death sowed the seeds for the Sino-Russia split, culminating in President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Therefore, despite their ‘no limits’ partnership, Russia and China have a chequered history that has not always been smooth.

Russia’s ambitions in the international order are not undiminished despite its performance in Ukraine. Russia’s expectations to remain polar in a bipolar world will eventually lead to tensions with China, as China now wants to assert its position in a bipolar international order with the US. Yet, China’s position on Ukraine was more for convenience than conviction, as China’s policy has always been non-interference. Furthermore, China does not want a democratic Russia, similar to 1990s Russia, on its doorstep as that could instigate opposition to Communist rule. Moreover, a weaker Russia is also a dangerous prospect for China as it can destabilise its economic trade in a period where China is experiencing economic turbulence.

Why could the EU be left out?

The answer to this question is simple: Donald J. Trump. The erratic former President who, during his tenure, defied allies and diplomats alike and held two summits with Kim Jong-Un, could spell trouble for EU-US relations, both vis-à-vis Ukraine and also in international fora. The EU spent the last two years repeating the same US narrative that China wants to change the international order and calling on China to influence Russia to stop its war in Ukraine, coupled with some Member States’ decision to reverse their adherence to the One China Policy. All these factors irritate China as it knows full well that it is economically and militarily strong, and its foreign policy will be dictated by its prism.

The EU did not heed China’s message to be strategically autonomous from the US, forgetting China’s strength on the global political stage. The EU has misinterpreted this message and has, until this month, believed that China wanted to drive a wedge between the EU and the US. On its part, China has demonstrated that, if it wants to speak to the US, it can do so without needing anyone’s help. China’s moment was in San Francisco and, under its terms, it concluded different agreements with the US while the rhetoric was toned down accordingly. This was illustrated by Biden’s adherence to the One China Policy when questioned on a possible invasion of Taiwan by China.

The prospect of another Trump presidency, the seeming success of the Xi-Biden meeting, and the unbalanced trade relationship are weakening the EU’s position in this forthcoming EU-China Summit. The EU’s strength vis-à-vis China holds only by a thread, as China wants to re-attract foreign direct investment to cushion its economic turbulence.

Hamas’ attacks against Israel

The 7th October Hamas attack on Israel was the cherry on the cake. The EU’s initial response with the suspension of funds to Palestinians, and the reversal of that decision hours later. The visit to Israel by European Parliament President Roberta Metsola and Von der Leyen exposed the deep divisions within the EU on this issue. The only difference between the EU position and China’s is the latter’s failure to condemn Hamas explicitly, as the positions are now more aligned. Both sides are calling for a political trajectory for the Palestinians, and the call for a ceasefire is more vociferous than ever in Europe. The recent Middle East conflict has unravelled the power projection the EU had painstakingly built on Ukraine. The bloc’s position as an interlocutor in the region is now lost. This recent debacle has continued to weaken the EU’s position with China, and the recent visit by Arab countries lobbying for Beijing’s greater involvement in the conflict was a clear illustration of where the power dynamics lie.

Less fragmentation

Clearly, the EU needs a more coherent foreign policy, and it should start by addressing the fragmentation within the European External Action Service (EEAS), its foreign policy arm. The Middle East conflict demonstrated that, even within its ranks, there are divisions. More importantly, the EU needs to genuinely understand the motivations behind China’s position on myriad issues.

China’s power is irreversible. The only way the EU can secure its place as a geopolitical interlocutor is to understand when and how to cooperate with China, even if it requires swallowing its pride. It must better shape its relations with China from a prism of its geopolitical priorities, before it is too late.

Photo credit: EPA

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