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The War in Ukraine is not a watershed in China-EU relations – yet

SCRIPTS Blog Post No. 61 by Yaning Zhang

№ 61/2022 from Nov 14, 2022

Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent reactions in the foreign policy arena have resulted in global shifts in alliances and thus power dynamics. SCRIPTS alumnus Dr. Yaning Zhang analyses these in regard to the US-China-EU strategic triangle and what this means for future room for manoeuvre in the global order.

Russian billiards with three players. The US-China-EU Relations Triangle in the light of Russia’s War in Ukraine

Russian billiards with three players. The US-China-EU Relations Triangle in the light of Russia’s War in Ukraine
Image Credit: Photo by Saint Rambo on Unsplash

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine sent waves across the European continent. To thwart the brutal military offensive right on the EU’s doorstep, Brussels – together with like-minded allies – has adopted eight packages of sanctions against Russia at an impressive speed. While the unprecedented solidarity across the Atlantic is laudable, the harsh truth is that a strong alliance among Western democracies is simply not enough to stall the war machine of the Kremlin.

China, as the world’s second largest economy and one of the closest political allies of Russia, remains the most critical but still missing piece of the political encirclement of Russia orchestrated by the EU and the United States. Since the onset of the war, Beijing has been reluctant to use the term ‘invasion’(instead, Beijing labels it as an ‘issue’ or a ‘crisis’), let alone condemn or even sanction Russia. Moreover, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has repeatedly blamed NATO’s enlargement as the root cause of the tragedy and denounced Western sanctions against Russia as ‘adding fuel to the flames’.

Just three weeks before Russia’s aggression, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin jointly declared ‘a friendship with no limits’. It remains unclear whether Beijing was tricked by Moscow to offer such a politically costly commitment, but few observers would dispute that Beijing has taken a pro-Russia neutrality position on the war.

Without doubt, Brussels was irate, if not furious, about Beijing’s neutrality towards such a gross violation of a country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, whose sanctity has been long preached in Chinese diplomacy. In his scathing piece entitled On China’s choices and responsibilities’, EU’s foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell stated rather harshly that ‘we see the war as a moment of truth where countries have to show their colors’. Apparently, Brussels’ bitter reflection on EU-China relations against the backdrop of the Ukraine war begs the question: might strategic relations with Beijing be heading towards an irreversible watershed moment?

By and large, the dynamics of China-EU relations evolve within – and are shaped by – the broad US-China-EU strategic triangle. Against the context of all-out strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing, both Brussels and Beijing have good reasons to continue engaging with each other.

China-US Relations: Strategic Rivalry on Several Fronts

As for China, the overarching focus of its foreign policy in the long-term is to gain an upper hand in the strategic competition with the United States. At the current stage, Beijing is faced with enormous pressure from Washington on both political and economic fronts. Since 2021, the Biden administration has moved swiftly to intensify the encirclement of China in the Indo-Pacific region. Through the AUKUS security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States for the Indo-Pacific region, and the Quad summits a semi-regular format for security dialogues between India, Japan, the United States, and Australia, all major regional rivalries of China, have been assembled under the leadership of Washington. On the economic front, the two global powers have been trapped in a costly trade war for more than 5 years. According to recent research from the Person Institute for International Economics, punitive tariffs imposed by both countries against the other involve 66.4% of US imports from China and 58.3% of Chinese imports from the United States, or roughly US$425 billion worth of trade in total.

As if political and economic containment is not enough to cap China’s catch-up in strategic capacity, US Congress recently passed the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act to consolidate the American dominance in the advanced technologies, a move which opens a new front in the tech war between the United States and China.

China-EU-relations: Maneuverability through Distance

Faced with an irredeemable confrontation with the United States, China perceives the EU as a critical partner with special sway that China cannot bear to lose. Most apparently, the EU is the only alternative market where China can maintain access to similar technologies to those offered by the United States, so as to break the US high-tech stronghold and sustain its ambition for achieving leadership of next-generation technologies. Additionally, unlike China-US relations, EU-China relations have always been defined as being ‘free from direct geographical conflicts’. Although the controversial rapport between Beijing and Moscow in the context of the Ukraine war adds complexity in this regard, Beijing still argues with relative comfort that it is ‘not a party that is directly involved in this crisis’.

Most importantly, the EU aspires to be a more autonomous actor in global affairs. This gives Beijing invaluable maneuverability to exploit the transatlantic discord and break the political encirclement orchestrated by the United States in the Indo-Pacific. In each of his four exchanges with European leaders after Russia’s aggression, Xi repeatedly urged his European counterparts to ‘form its own perception of China’ and ‘adopt and an independent China policy’. The thinly veiled aim behind the earnest voice is clearly to embolden the European ambition of keeping a distance from rather than closely following the US’s China strategy.

For the EU, China is not an insignificant partner either. The EU is essentially a trading block that was established and thrives on the logic of open market principles and economic integration. As the EU’s biggest trading partner in goods since 2020, China plays a critical role in maintaining the stability of the global supply chain and the block’s growth prospect. Thus, economic ‘decoupling’ with China, campaigned for by US politicians, is against the EU’s own survival instinct and would inevitably force the EU to seriously re-examine and even reconstruct its growth model, its guiding approach towards multilateralism, and its constitutional nature as a civilian and normative power. In other words, the European answer to its China problem partially lies at the institutional root of the EU itself.

The gaps between EU and US China strategies run deeper than mere economic calculus and are rooted in the different perceptions of global order. Certainly, Brussels and Washington share the same liberal scripts in terms of upholding the rule-based international order and confronting challenges in areas of democracy and human rights and unfair economic practices, but a crucial dimension of the United States’ China strategy—which Brussels does not necessarily share—is the classic concept of ‘grand strategy for power primacy’. US President Joe Biden did not shy away from stating that ‘China has an overall goal to become…the most powerful country in the world…that’s not going to happen on my watch’. By contrast, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued back in 2020 that ‘China’s economic success is not only because it may not comply with certain rules but also because it has capabilities. We must accept fair competition’. Even for the current German chancellor who declared a Zeitenwende of foreign policy after the Ukraine war, decoupling with Beijing is still a clearly no-go opion. Simply put, the rule-based international order is the end goal per se rather than a “fender-guard of hegemony”.

How Foreign Policies towards China shape the US-China-EU strategic triangle

The intertwined logics of liberal norms and realpolitik embedded in the United States’ China strategy make Brussels constantly suspect that Washington may subsume its hegemonic agenda under the discourse of defending liberal democracy. The worst-case scenario is that the EU is merely a useful instrument of the United States to achieve a tactical advantage over China. This concern is not alarmist. Afterall, the bitter memories of American unilateralism under the Trump administration do not easily fade away with the passage of time. Some may argue that President Biden has largely fixed the transatlantic discord, but the dramatic diplomatic clash between Elysée and Whitehouse over the Australian nuclear submarine deal in 2021 and the recent trade dispute between the EU and U.S over the latter’s controversial Inflation Reduction Act might lead to a less sanguine view.

Make no mistake, even if there are clear gaps between the strategies of the EU and United States in their approaches to China, it would be naïve to assume that China can easily play on these gaps to its own favor. Given that Brussels does not have a profoundly different diagnosis of the China problem from that of the United States, and that Beijing is in an uncomfortably defensive position against US containment, Brussels actually holds a much stronger bargaining position vis-à-vis Beijing. That being said, it is also a delusion that the EU sees completely eye to eye with the United States on the approach towards China.

Without doubt, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine leaves China-EU relations outside of ‘business as usual’. But the locked-in competition between the United States. and China also situates the EU in a structural position to play between both sides, especially against China. In this case, Brussels is expected to continue engaging with Beijing so long as the US-China table is not completely overturned and so long as Brussels can still squeeze meaningful concessions from China concerning long complained-about issues of imbalanced market access and non-market economic practices. Ultimately, it may be the case that the fate of China-EU relations depends on how far Beijing is willing to cater to the EU’s appetite.

Dr. Yaning Zhang is an alumnus of the Berlin Graduate School of Transnational Studies at the Cluster of Excellence SCRIPTS and assistant professor of international politics of Fudan University, Shanghai. He studied international politics at Fudan University, Shanghai, SciencesPo, Paris and College of Europe, Bruges. His research interests include collective tolerations of treaty breach, flexibility of international organization, and crisis management of the EU.

The article is also available in an adapted version on the Diplomat.