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4th Feb 2023

Opinion

EU must beware Beijing's new charm offensive

  • Recent gestures are low cost and low risk for Beijing (Photo: Stefan)
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Lately, Beijing seems to be on a charm offensive towards the European Union — sending special envoys to the region, seeking contact with European ministers during July's G20 foreign ministers Meeting in Bali, supporting the purchase of almost 300 Airbus jets by Chinese airlines, and agreeing to conduct the EU-China High-level Economic and Trade Dialogue.

It is quite possibly hoping that the leaders of Germany, France, Italy and Spain visit Beijing on the way to the G20 summit in Indonesia this fall (although Beijing has denied a report to this effect).

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China does appear to be signaling it wants to stabilise relations, but the EU should be wary.

The recent gestures are low cost and low risk for Beijing. It has not shown any willingness to address issues that the EU sees as roadblocks to the relationship — Russia, Lithuania and the human-rights situation in Xinjiang.

Europe and China have continued to drift apart over the last months, reducing Brussels-Beijing interactions to essentially a channel for damage control.

In light of the exchange of sanctions in 2021, China's economic coercion of Lithuania for allowing Taiwan to open a representative office under the name Taiwan instead of Taipei, and the divergence of approaches to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, room for substantive collaborative initiatives is small indeed.

The EU should be cautious regarding any Chinese change in tone for another reason — a rapprochement looks tempting given short-term pressures on both sides.

The EU leaders may warm to stabilising relations with China to mitigate the economic crisis looming over Europe.

In the face of domestic economic pressure and increasing geopolitical pressure from the United States (and improving transatlantic relations), Beijing could be seeking a modicum of foreign-policy stability ahead of this fall's Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress.

But the EU needs to bear in mind Beijing's conciliatory tone could turn out to be unsustainable.

Beijing's growing geopolitical assertiveness, its continued political support for Moscow, and its firm reaction to being officially labeled a "challenge" by Nato summit and to US House speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan point in a different direction.

Its launch of the Global Security Initiative (GSI) paired with outreach to developing countries — all this also suggests that meaningful change to Beijing's stance towards the EU would require a transformation of China's entire foreign policy, a seismic shift that could only be initiated by president Xi Jinping himself.

He has spent two terms as CCP's secretary general and has used this time to increase his influence on foreign policy and the state's diplomatic apparatus.

Xi redefined the scope of foreign-policy actors to include more non-traditional, non-state players under the "greater diplomacy" (大外交) concept, weakening state structures and centralising the foreign decision-making in the hands of the CCP.

In 2018, for example, he drove the creation of the party's central foreign affairs commission and the promotion of political loyalists over technocrats in China's diplomatic structures.

Time and again, Xi has been personally involved in foreign policy, launching projects like the Belt and Road Initiative and GSI — and beyond doubt also with China's political broad alignment with Russia.

Getting real

If China really wanted to realign its foreign-policy trajectory, the party congress this fall would signal that (alongside bestowing the all-important third term as CCP General Secretary on Xi).

The two top foreign-policy hands — Yang Jiechi, CCP politburo member and director of the central foreign affairs commission general office, and Wang Yi, state councillor and minister of foreign affairs — are expected to retire in accordance with CCP age limits.

Their successors will signal what type of expertise the party expects to need for the next half a decade — and Xi's speech at the Party Congress should provide more context for this.

Substantive signals of reorientation could also include Beijing's support in dealing with spillovers of the Russia's invasion of Ukraine on energy and food supplies as well as migration.

It should include a more cooperative tone toward the EU in multilateral fora such as the World Health Organization or International Monetary Fund) and "minilateral" organizations, like the BRICS country grouping, as well as bilateral concessions in climate policy, competition, human rights and other key issues for the EU.

Europe should look for such signals, but not bet that China's stance will change fundamentally at the party congress or during Xi's third term as General Secretary.

The EU should remain clear-eyed about Beijing's current diplomatic efforts. They are more likely a politically motivated request for temporary stabilisation than an attempt to reset relations.

Should a Beijing visit by selected European leaders materialise, the EU should guard against fragmentation of the bloc's stance, perhaps by agreeing a joint position during a European Council summit ahead of the visit or demanding the inclusion of Poland, the Netherlands or others in the group.

Any chance for targeted cooperation should of course not be dismissed. But any EU-China stabilsation should feature concrete and verifiable requests by the EU, not just gestures of good will.

Author bio

Grzegorz Stec is a Brussels-based EU-China relations specialist with the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin.

Disclaimer

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

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