The China challenge is now commonly reduced to a seductively elegant formula, endorsed by the European Union itself, and according to which China is a cooperation partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival. But can relations with China be neatly compartmentalized? The fact is that systemic rivalry now permeates the other two dimensions, and that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership will always assess cooperation through the lenses of its implications for their systemic rivalry.
Admittedly, cooperation is still attractive with a state that has become the most important trading partner for most countries. Many European companies feel they cannot afford to abandon this market. Cooperation with China is also essential in most global challenges such as climate change, pandemics or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But China also aims to project itself globally with a toolbox that includes persuasion, coercion, corruption and cyber action, mixing inducements with threats. There is almost no international commitment or legal obligation that China is not ready to breach if its interests require it. Beijing is also seeking to reform global governance in line with its own preferences and perceived needs. The rivalry is real.
The Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) is a case in point of China’s commercial and diplomatic expansionism, and gives the notion of systemic rivalry a concrete meaning. With the BRI, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has succeeded in presenting itself as a helpful donor worldwide - this is a significant achievement on the world stage.
Another example of how systemic rivalry currently dominates Europe-China relations concerns economic competition. Since the military and security sectors represent an important driver of innovation, competition between national innovation systems not only relates to socio-economic prosperity, but also to geopolitical rivalry and national security. China’s almost total endorsement of Russia’s narrative regarding the Ukraine conflict, its opposition to sanctions and the risk of further practical support are now a question of vital interest to Europeans.