Sergio Restelli
Sergio Restelli

Tensions in EU-China ties due to Beijing’s assertiveness

EU-China ties are currently at an all time low. Original image from the EU website.

On September 16, the European Parliament adopted the European Union (EU)-China strategy, which in its core message insisted that the EU should be more assertive while dealing with China to uphold its core values. The accompanying resolution to the strategy underlined that through policies like the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) and ‘Made in China 2025’, China is pursuing a ‘stronger global role’ which poses threats to rules-based multilateralism and core democratic values. This shift in Europe’s stance from treating China as a strategic partner to now a strategic rival stems from its belief that China under Xi Jinping has shown scant regard to Europe’s concerns and is using the continent to advance its own geopolitical and geo-economic interests. Moreover, Beijing’s continued evasiveness on Coronavirus’s origins and tactics like the ‘Werewolf diplomacy’ have only added to the EU’s scepticism.

The european parliaments resolution states that “investment and trade conditionality by itself is not enough to counter Chinese assertiveness.” It also called for a bilateral investment agreement to be negotiated between the EU and Taiwan, including essential cooperation on critical supplies such as semiconductors. In addition, the resolution mentioned the practice of coercive labour in Tibet and Xinjiang and asked Beijing to come clean on these counts.

According to some experts, EU-China ties have deteriorated to the lowest point since 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, after which some European countries had imposed an arms embargo and other restrictions on China. Since then, however, there has been growing engagement between the two sides as both expanded trade and economic cooperation, driven by the EU’s concept of reciprocity. The relative stability of China’s relations with the U.S. also contributed to this dynamic. However, things began to upend beginning 2000s when Europe realised that China was unduly benefitting from unrestricted access to European markets even as it blocked Europe from accessing its vast market, citing its unique economic system. Moreover, for Europe, while China represented an economic opportunity, it also expected Beijing to show more respect for democracy and human rights.

But as China’s economic and military power grew, Europe’s expectations remained unfulfilled, creating scepticism about Beijing’s intentions. As a result, in 2019, the EU defined China as an “economic competitor” and “systemic rival.” Yet the EU persisted in its attempt to rectify its approach by intending to have a more equitable trade partnership with China through the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) and mitigation of risks posed by 5G networks pushed by the outgoing German chancellor Angela Merkel. The CAI-negotiated for several years and finalised in December 2020, would have facilitated greater EU access to Chinese markets.  It was pertinent that the agreement was reached despite overall distrust among the EU member states on China’s foreign policy and BRI.

However, since then, multiple actions from Beijing have contributed to growing dissonance with Europe. Foremost among them was China’s imposition of counter-sanctions on EU and British parliamentarians, academics, and think tanks, alleging their complicity in spreading “lies and disinformation” about China in Europe. As a result, the European Parliament decided to freeze the agreement’s ratification until China lifted the sanctions. Ironically, this downward spiral in EU-China relations has come about in the 45th year of the establishment of bilateral ties.

In recent months, European citizens’ distrust on China has reached a record high – primarily stemming from China’s poor handling of the COVID-19 outbreak and pandemic. Beijing’s persistent disinformation campaigns, particularly in terms of COVID-19 aid to some of the Eastern European countries, only complicated the matters. Besides, according to the admission of Chinese scholars, their leaders’ insistence that their citizens and diplomats be ‘confident’ and show more ‘fighting spirit’ has been perceived as arrogance and hostility by the international community.  This has led many European leaders to realise that there are fundamental differences between Europe and China, which cannot be reconciled by greater political or economic engagement.

As a result, many EU member states have now begun standing up to China by emphasising the need for reducing their economic and trade dependency on China, particularly in critical sectors of the economy. The European Parliament resolution’s mention of working out an agreement with China and cooperation on critical supplies shows this thinking. In fact, as noted by a study by the European Council on Foreign Relations, with a few exceptions, the EU member states agree that they need to restrict Chinese investments in strategic sectors, underlining their growing wariness of overdependence and exposure to the political and economic risks emanating from Beijing.

European democracies’ weariness of China reflects the mounting apprehension that China’s assertiveness will end up bringing the world closer to a confrontation, not just with its democratic neighbours but also with the West. It appears that through its actions like territorial aggressiveness with its neighbours, cyberattacks on its adversaries, debt diplomacy through BRI, actions in Hong Kong, and pursuing maritime supremacy to threaten smaller countries, Beijing is clearly demonstrating its intent not to change its assertive behaviour. Moreover, in its quest for a global role, China is partnering with failed states to build a network of allies. The world has to take note of this and strengthen the partnership of democracies to counter an authoritarian regime seeking global hegemony.

About the Author
Sergio Restelli is an Italian political advisor, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990's as the special assistant to the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Martelli and worked closely with anti-mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades he has been involved in peace building and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020 his first fiction "Napoli sta bene" was published.
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