Mar 27, 2023

The China Challenge

The stakes for Europe to recalibrate its policy vis-à-vis Beijing are rising. Berlin and Brussels have more leeway than they might realize, but will need to take tough decisions.

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves after his speech as the new Politburo Standing Committee members meet the media following the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China October 23, 2022.
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“Right now there are changes, the likes of which we haven’t seen in 100 years,” Chinese President Xi Jinping told his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, as he departed Moscow on March 22 following a three-day summit . “And we are the ones driving these changes together. … Take care please, my dear friend.”

Xi’s emphatic words should make it clear to even the most optimistic observer that today’s China presents a challenge to Germany and Europe that has been underestimated for far too long. While the two autocratic leaders did not repeat their enthusiastic “no-limits” partnership rhetoric of early February 2022, after which Putin unleashed his brutal attack on Ukraine, it is clear that Beijing is focused on cashing in on the economic benefits Putin’s folly has brought with it for China rather than taking on the role of an impartial “peacemaker” when it comes to the war (which Xi didn’t mention at all). And that Russia is the preferred partner to change the current world order.

The Xi-Putin meeting showed, however, that Moscow is now definitely the junior partner in this increasingly block-like “Dragon-Bear” combination, turning into Beijing’s “resource colony” (in the words of an unnamed Kremlin insider quoted by the Financial Times), while China helps with semiconductors and other vital components for Russia’s continued war effort, without—for now—crossing the red line of supplying weapons on a larger scale.

Even before the summit, Europe “balancing act” vis-à-vis China had become deeply complicated. “For Europe, a sharp deterioration in US-China relations represents a significant challenge,” writes Noah Barkin in this issue. “It was four years ago that the European Commission described China as ‘a partner, competitor, and systemic rival.’ Since then, the balance between these three labels has shifted decisively in the direction of rivalry.”

Grzegorz Stec and Mikko Huotari sketch out six priorities for the EU to “de-risk” its dealings with China, warning that “relations with China can turn on a dime in this uncertain geopolitical climate.” Louise Watt, writing from Taipei, points out that Europe’s importance for China has actually increased recently. Tim Rühlig, dissecting Germany’s process for arriving at its forthcoming national “China Strategy” this spring, warns that such a paper must go beyond merely describing the difficult trade-offs the country (and by extension, Europe) will need to decide on, warning: “If Germany doesn’t make hard choices now, change will happen to it anyway, but the Germans won’t be the ones shaping it.”

In fact, Europe’s room for maneuver might be bigger than it often appears to policymakers. The fine line that China is trying to tread, claiming adherence to the UN Charter and the principle of territorial integrity, are even more visibly at odds with its behavior toward Moscow. It seems to speak of an unwillingness to accept that it cannot have it both ways with Europe. It’s time for Europe to use this ambivalence to its own advantage and put Beijing more firmly on the spot.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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