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Europe’s China Backlash

Europe’s China Backlash
 François Godement
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - U.S. and Asia

Europe’s China policy is undergoing a tectonic shift. The attention was on Mr. Xi Jinping’s visits for influence to EU member states – Italy after Portugal and Spain a few months ago, and even tiny Monaco (population: 38,000). This is the time chosen by the EU to suddenly come forward with a short and crisp new China strategy that starts from realism : China is a "systemic rival", and the EU must build its own responses, starting from competition rules and industrial policy, leveraging issues in dealing with Beijing. 

The Commission leaves few stones unturned, starting from China’s egregious human rights practices, noting drily that China’s large exports of coal-fired plants contradict its commitments on climate, and promoting coordination across the continent for the security of 5G networks. 

To this shift, Emmanuel Macron is adding an innovation in European foreign policy: he is inviting Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker to a joint meeting with Xi Jinping during the latter’s state visit to France this week. He is also setting a high bar: besides climate, the reform of WTO and key issues in the EU-China economic relationship are on the menu. Mr. Macron is also just back from East Africa where he pointed out in Djibouti the risk of Chinese hegemony. He has also publicly endorsed in Brussels the new European strategy, commenting that the EU has to act like a superpower if it wants to be treated as one.

It is an act of survival for Europe, stuck between a relentless Chinese push for influence and twisting international rules.

These are not cut and paste statements from the EU, or an act of bravado from a Gallic admirer of de Gaulle. It is an act of survival for Europe, stuck between a relentless Chinese push for influence and twisting international rules, and an American president who seems extremely skeptical of Europe’s usefulness. And it is an act of affirmation by France, now the only large EU state that combines a resolute pro-European stand with a capacity and a will to use hard power.

Survival through self-affirmation is not an unknown combination for France, nor for the EU. China has treated Europeans roughly on occasions – neglecting some dialogues and paralyzing others. And it has only become markedly more courteous since its trade relations with the United States have entered a storm. But the US-China confrontation has changed literally nothing in China’s basic behavior: reach for its own immediate interests while stonewalling – coldly or politely – on the rest. In France too, there has been no shortage of attempts to engage with China – joint development projects in Africa, cooperation against climate change. The truth is that China acts by itself, for itself, and kicks open any door that shows a crack. Not all of this is news. But Xi’s personal power and passion for control do not help his bureaucracy to smooth the edges.

China retains the advantage of largely uncontested top down power, while Europe must repeatedly prove it can coordinate with itself. Would a populist upsurge at the May European elections endanger Europe’s realist shift? Let’s doubt this. The EU’s Eastern members haven’t been strong beneficiaries of their collective fling with China. The UK’s "golden era" with China vanished after the Brexit vote. It is not Italy’s strength that is attractive to Chinese diplomacy, but the very weakness of two coalition parties which only two years ago were campaigning…against China. China does not care for opinions, it looks at the balance of force in each of its relationship.

For the time being, what we see is a new start that breaks, in form and substance, with the tradition of EU-China relations.

And that’s where another known unknown lies. An avant-garde action by France, Germany and the Commission makes sense, but it begs reaching out immediately to other member states – and probably also to the UK as soon as possible. EU member states hate nothing more than being the periphery to a Franco-German axis. For the time being, what we see is a new start that breaks, in form and substance, with the tradition of EU-China relations. 

Finally, how will Mr. Xi move? China’s recent focus has been on the United States, and on containing damage as well as concessions inside the trade relationship while gaining ground on strategic issues. Visits to Portugal, Italy or Monaco were never going to change that. But Mr. Xi has shown a lifetime of talent in adapting to circumstances. In normal times, punishing France, ignoring the EU and rewarding Germany would be par for the course. But these are not normal times. Mr. Xi will likely pause and size up the claimed coherence of his European partner. The Commission’s turn to self-reliant policy prescriptions, and Mr. Macron’s courage in actually practicing the European course that he espouses, are the right moves. They will now require tenacity, salesmanship and support.


Copyright : Tiziana FABI / POOL / AFP

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