28th Jan 2022


How Beijing sees EU 'strategic autonomy'

  • China is in favour of more EU strategic autonomy, but sees EU policy still as a part of the US containment strategy. (Photo: EUOBOR)

Strategic autonomy is an EU slogan that has been used for years, but its concrete meaning still eludes us. It extends into multiple areas, such as the EU's engagement with major international players.

Amid managing its difficult ties with the US, China has been keeping a close watch on the EU's quest for strategic autonomy -after all, Brussels' neutrality or bias could be a game changer in the Sino-American pursuit of influence.

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For the time being, Chinese analysts passed a mixed judgment - the "EU Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific" did not significantly damage the EU's strategic autonomy, but the difficulties with the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) called into question the EU's credibility as an independent strategic actor.

Public diplomacy and clear messaging are imperative from the EU's side to avoid misperceptions and put further pressure on China-EU ties.

Chinese media

Looking at Chinese outlets, it appears that experts scrutinised various aspects of EU strategic autonomy - its definition, rationale, and practical manifestations.

In these discussions, strategic autonomy is seen as an independent foreign policy that is resistant to external interference and coercion.

The essence of this approach is that EU wants to avoid choosing sides in the China-US strategic competition. It does so by adopting a mixed policy toward the great powers by reducing security dependence on the US and economic reliance on China.

At the same time, the EU maintains a certain level of engagement with both parties, such as strategic coordination with Washington and the mutual promotion of multilateralism with Beijing.

Why does the EU follow such a policy? Chinese analysts identify at least three reasons behind the EU's choice.

First, Brussels was susceptible to pressure from the US given its dependence on it.

Second, the EU became concerned about China's increasing clout.

Third, the EU needs a more balanced approach to the US and China because the former is becoming less important to EU security, while the latter is increasingly important economically.

EU strategic autonomy matters to Beijing because in the latter's reading, the US is trying to use the EU to contain China. At the same time the US wants to avoid a potential cooperation and close ties between EU and China.

A strong and independent EU, could resist these strategic designs, hence EU neutrality favours Beijing.

Cooperation vs. containment

How did EU strategic autonomy fare so far? On the plus side, some elements of the EU's Indo-Pacific policy signalled the EU's divergence from the US approach to the region - showing signs of genuine strategic independence.

First, it is a strategy for cooperation, not a strategy of containment.

Second, the EU focus is broad, involving connectivity, green deals and digital transformation.

Finally, the EU considers China to be part of the Indo-Pacific, suggesting openness for cooperation.

On the other hand, the EU's approach to the CAI is considered by some in China as a test of its strategic autonomy. Reaching agreement in principle on CAI was good for EU strategic autonomy because it seemingly decreased EU dependence on the US and boosted China-EU relations.

However, the freezing of the deal and the EU's sanctions on China were seen as imitating the US approach toward Beijing.

What does this mean to the EU? It appears that Beijing evaluates the EU's strategic autonomy in terms of its capacity to resist perceived US pressure. EU actions that might be independent of Washington could still be seen by Beijing as a Western plot against China.

These types of misperceptions could put further pressure on the already strained EU-China ties.

If the EU wants to maintain strategic autonomy and the prospect of mutually beneficial cooperation with China, it needs to counter misperceptions and avoid leaving other actors with the impression that it is acting under duress from Washington, or it is being used by it.

A well‑crafted public diplomacy campaign toward strategic partners that elaborates on the EU's rationale for crucial foreign policy actions could be the first step toward that direction.

Author bio

Daniel Balazs is a recent graduate of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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