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Mar 27, 2023

Europe Seen with Fresh Eyes in Beijing

As the rivalry grows between the US and China, Beijing is regarding Europe as an increasingly important player. While it has recently ramped up its charm offensive, irritants in the relationship remain.

China's top diplomat Wang Yi shakes hands with French Foreign and European Affairs Minister Catherine Colonna as they attend a meeting in Paris, France February 15, 2023.
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China is increasingly trying to reset its relations with Europe, which have been languishing for several years. Many of the irritants in their relationship—including European concerns over economic reliance on China, human rights, and Taiwan—are the same that plague Beijing’s relations with the United States.

But there appears little chance of a fresh start between Beijing and Washington anytime soon. So, China is turning to its other key trading partner, the European Union.

Chinese companies have invested in European industries, including energy, car making, and infrastructure, and many Chinese businesses see Europe as a lucrative market for their products and services. One advantage for Beijing is that Europe as a whole does not appear to be as keen to join in with Washington’s talk of decoupling.

Politically, China is hoping it will be able to count on good relations with Europe to balance Beijing’s rivalry with the United States. Beijing also wants to undo some of the damage to its international reputation over the past few years, including from the COVID-19 pandemic and its assertive “wolf warrior” brand of diplomacy that has raised hackles in European capitals.

More than a change of tone, though, there are signs that China is serious about a shift in policy toward Europe.

Focus on Europe

Wang Yi, formerly China's foreign minister, toured the continent in February in his first trip abroad after being named China’s top foreign policy official as director of the office of CCP's central foreign affairs commission. He visited France, Germany, Italy, and Hungary.

China aims to “intensify China-EU high level exchanges and strategic communication to promote the stability and long-term development of China-EU relations,” he wrote in January’s edition of Qiushi, the Chinese Communist Party’s leading theoretical journal, suggesting a new focus on their relationship.

Wang’s new position, as director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, came on the heels of his promotion to the 24-member Politburo in October. “I think China has a strong desire to repair ties with Europe, and we see that in China’s own personnel changes as well,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a researcher on Chinese elite politics at The Australian National University in Canberra.

Among the roughly 200 newly selected members of the decision-making Central Committee, five are from the foreign policy leadership—including Wang. “This is quite an expansion in terms of the personnel,” said Sung, adding that “Europe is a key component” of their experience.

Unlike previous foreign policy appointments, none of the five has a background focused on US relations. Instead, three of the five are Europe hands. Two, Liu Jianchao and Qin Gang, worked in China’s London embassy. Qin was deputy foreign minister with responsibility for European affairs. Liu Haixing studied in France and has twice worked in China’s embassy in Paris.

This maneuvering is putting Beijing in a position where it hopes to counter US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s strategy of “approaching China from a position of strength,” or together with US partners. “You can see that’s what China wants to do,” says Sung. “They want to find ways to poach away the non-US part of the Western coalition.”

The “Ukraine Problem”

But in any rapprochement with Europe, the Chinese government faces a big hurdle: Russia’s war against Ukraine. Increasing European mistrust of China has been compounded by Beijing’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion. Beijing is an ally of Moscow and has backed its line that it was provoked by NATO’s eastward expansion.

Indeed, straight after visiting the four European countries in February, Wang went to Russia. He told President Vladimir Putin that the Chinese-Russian relationship stood “as firm as Mount Tai,” a Chinese mountain—a Chinese idiom meaning “as solid as a rock.”

Wang vowed, also in Qiushi, to “deepen strategic mutual trust and mutually beneficial cooperation between China and Russia.” That and China’s 12-point plan “to resolve the conflict between Russia and Ukraine” published in February, which calls for the lifting of Western sanctions on Russia, suggests Beijing is digging in with its support for Moscow.

“I think China understands that for Europe this is difficult to accept and also given that strong European unity to respond to the invasion,” said Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, assistant professor at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan and a former political advisor in the European Parliament.

“I think China is trying even harder to, in a way, make sure that Europe doesn’t go too fast in rethinking its relationship with China,” particularly as market access and cooperation in the areas that the two sides have established “remains important for China’s own national interests and further development.”

Similarities and Irritants

Beijing has long seen the European Union as a major player in world affairs, with its strength in numbers. Beijing also places emphasis on similarities between the two. Chinese officials have said many times that China and Europe are “two major forces for world peace” and “two major markets for common development” in unstable and uncertain times.

“China and the EU have many things in common in their diplomatic philosophy,” said Fu Cong, the new head of the Chinese Mission to the EU, in an interview with Chinese media published in March. “For example, we both advocate multilateralism and enjoy good cooperation in climate change, arms control, and non-proliferation efforts.”

But there are also many irritants in China’s relationship with Europe. These include the latter’s condemnation of its treatment of Uighurs in its western region of Xinjiang and of the crackdown on Hong Kong. In turn, Beijing sees such criticism as interference in its domestic affairs.

The two sides also have trade disputes, including over intellectual property protection and accusations of trade coercion. In 2022 the EU sued Beijing at the World Trade Organization for blocking Lithuanian goods. That followed the deepening of ties between Lithuania and Taiwan, a self-governing island over which Beijing claims sovereignty. Some other Eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic have also been strengthening ties with Taiwan, to Beijing’s displeasure.

In the wake of the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there have been growing calls within Europe to reduce dependency on China by diversifying supply chains for technologies and critical raw materials.That comes on top of the European Union designating China not only as partner and competitor, but also as a systemic rival in 2019. “That remains a point of great concern that Beijing dislikes,” said Ferenczy. “And they said it a million times that this is a show of lack of respect.”

Yet even though China-Europe relations have soured in recent years, Chinese state media have put a different spin on it.

“It’s funny how if you watch the Chinese narrative, they’ve also said that ‘Europe-China relations are going just fine. We are good neighbors, good partners, we cooperate and our cooperation will continue,’” said Ferenczy. “And I guess this was deliberate, of course, in order to send that message to a domestic audience that China is taken seriously and that China is being respected.”

Certainly, Chinese perceptions of Europeans are favorable, and much better than their perceptions of Americans. A paper published in January in the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs considered two public opinion surveys of more than 2,000 adults living in China, and found Germany was the most popular of the 10 countries surveyed, with 69 percent holding favorable views. The authors theorize explanations could include “the Chinese public forming their perceptions from the reported stances of the European governments,” and “the possibility that the Chinese government has soft-pedalled European criticisms of China.”

Chinese Views of Europe

More generally among the public, the European continent is considered a land of cultural and historical importance, including in art, architecture, and literature—and a popular tourist destination to stock up on luxury goods. Chinese visitors are attracted by the Schengen visa because it allows travel to several countries. Europe’s universities draw thousands of Chinese students, behind those in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, but with the advantage of lower tuition fees. Popular courses include business and engineering.

On the political front, Beijing sees the European Union as a collective of 27 countries but tries to engage them separately to further its interests. Chinese political observers consider the influence of Eastern Europe to have grown, and that of the EU’s big powers Germany and France as having waned.

In the wake of the war in Ukraine, “the voices of Central and Eastern European and Nordic countries have increased significantly within the EU, and their policy propositions, such as being pro-US and containing Russia, are becoming the mainstream in the EU,” according to an article published in December 2022 by the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a government research institution. 

It warns that the crisis in Ukraine hasn’t only disrupted the EU’s “normal development process, but may also kill its geopolitical dream of becoming a key player in a multipolar world. This is not conducive to … the containment of hegemonism and power politics.”

Europe and the US

China generally sees Europe as too close to the United States—and even more so since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine. “In the areas of security and defense, Europe is more dependent on the United States,” and its goal of strategic autonomy “more distant,” according to the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. The institution notes that for the first time since 2015, the number of US troops in Europe surpassed 100,000.

In Beijing’s eyes, that growing dependence on Washington comes even as Europe is a big loser from the US-led sanctions on Russia in terms of soaring energy prices and inflation.

In Chinese foreign policy debates, the US is central because of the two countries’ geostrategic rivalry and its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Beijing is far more concerned about the American military presence in the Indo-Pacific than that of European nations—whose military capabilities it sees as limited. Furthermore, when they move to expand their presence in the region, Beijing sees Washington’s influence at play. “Germany expanding military presence in Indo-Pacific shows its defense policy is ‘kidnapped by US, NATO,’” read a headline in the state-run Global Times in September 2022.

The US is also central to how Beijing thinks about the global order. And that is why Europe, while an important and respected partner in itself, is being seen with fresh eyes in Beijing.

“Increasingly, I think there is also recognition that the EU is the potential lever that China can pull on when you try to reconfigure the balance of power between the US and China, not in terms of bilateral balance of power, but multilateral balance of power as well,” said Sung, of The Australian National University.

“So, for them, if Blinken is about finding a friend or partner to hang out, vis-à-vis China, then China is like ‘why not kind of do the same, right?’” he added. “So definitely Europe is on the agenda now in China.”

Louise Watt is a journalist in Taipei.