Celebrating both the 44th anniversary of their diplomatic ties and the 16th anniversary of their strategic partnership in 2019, EU-China relations are among the most significant in the global arena. From an economic perspective, the EU and China are the largest exporters in the world, with the two blocs accounting for around 30 percent of global trade. Diplomatically, current EU-China relations have become highly institutionalized, encompassing very dense diplomatic interactions at multiple levels including annual summits, regular ministerial meetings and more than 60 sectoral dialogues. In spite of their different political systems and world views, both sides have been committed to developing a comprehensive strategic partnership, as outlined in the “EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation” signed by both sides in 2013.
Nevertheless, the maturity of EU-China economic and diplomatic relations has not automatically led to a cozy relationship between the two powers. Over the past few years there has been growing anxiety in Brussels about Beijing’s economic and political outreach to Europe, especially against the backdrop of China’s newly-developed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Since the inception of the BRI in 2013, the EU has continually voiced concerns and skepticism about issues such as transparency, financial sustainability, openness and interoperability. Additionally, bilateral relations between the EU and China have been overshadowed by their profound differences in terms of economic and political governance, frequent conflicts over unbalanced trade flows and anti-dumping measures, as well as their divergent views on normative issues such as human rights and rule of law.
Strikingly, but not surprisingly, in March 2019, the European Commission and its High Representative published a strategic outlook on EU-China relations, which identifies Beijing as “a systemic rival” and an economic competitor, as well as a cooperation and negotiating partner. Does this hardening tone in Brussels’ narrative imply an increasingly antagonistic approach towards China? Whilst many agree that EU-China relations are at a crossroads, which direction is the relation currently taking? To seek an answer to these questions, two perspectives should mainly be considered.
First, the EU’s recent engagement with China should be examined in the broader context of the EU’s increasingly proactive strategy towards the Asia-Pacific region. While most analyses interpret the EU’s new strategic outlook as a response to China’s growing economic and political influence across the globe, my contention is that a more assertive EU approach towards China is inspired by Brussels’ growing economic, geopolitical and strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Second, despite the new assertiveness in the EU’s narrative of China, it is unlikely that the overarching relationship between Brussels and Beijing would undergo a transformation or a deterioration in the foreseeable future, given the highly institutionalized and interdependent relations between the two actors.
Since 2012, the EU has indeed pursued its own version of a “pivot to Asia” – namely a significant increase in its political and security engagement with Asian countries. Apart from pursuing free trade agreements with a number of key Asian partners such as Japan and Vietnam, Brussels has widened its participation in regional dialogues and operations, especially through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) and the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP). It has also fostered cooperation through cross-sectoral development programs of non-traditional security, such as counterterrorism, human trafficking, border-management and in the context of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense (CBRN). Brussels’ role as a political and security actor in Asia is therefore in line with the “EU Global Strategy” that has been informed by an increased pragmatism in Brussels’ approach to global politics and its aspiration to become a “global security provider” and a “global geopolitical actor”. Ursula von der Leven’s plans for the new EU Commission seem to be going in this direction: the new Commission is designated to be a “geopolitical Commission” ready to strengthen Europe’s position vis-à-vis other great powers as well as to take bold actions in global governance.
Against this backdrop, it is apparent that the EU’s plans for Asia matured into a more comprehensive strategy, the objectives of which were clearly expressed in the latest joint communication on “Connecting Europe and Asia” and in the 2018 Conclusions of the EU Council on “Enhanced EU security cooperation in and with Asia”. These documents proposed a “European way” to pursue sustainable, rule-based and comprehensive connectivity between Europe and Asia, emphasizing the EU’s own experience and values. If compared to prior strategies for Asia, these two documents no longer report Sino-EU relations as a high priority for the EU. Indeed, both dossiers also attach great importance to other regional partners, such as Japan, South Korea, India, South East Asia and . The EU has thus been developing a more cohesive and ambitious strategy for Asia that goes beyond its traditional focus on China and trade.
Consequently, the EU’s current approach towards China not only emerges from bilateral competition but also from Brussels’ new proactive role in the Asia-Pacific region. Considering the divergence in the economic structure, political system and norms between the EU and China, Brussels’ intention to extend its geopolitical and security footprint is bound to clash with Beijing’s own vision for Asia and increase the rivalry between the two powers. This is evident, for instance, in the EU policy for connecting Europe to Asia. Rooted in sustainability, transparency and law, the EU’s connectivity strategy competes with the BRI.
However, Beijing’s crucial position in Asia’s regional affairs ensures the EU’s striving to cooperate with the country, as Brussels’ ambitions to become a political and security player in the Asia-Pacific region could hardly be achieved without China’s support.