23rd Sep 2023


Why a cacophony of EU voices on China is a good thing

  • Judging the EU by the standards of nation-states like the US and China misunderstands the nature of European foreign policy and underestimates its ability to make the most from nuance in a world of black-and-white polarisation (Photo: Council of the European Union)
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Henry Kissinger used to complain he didn't know who to call in Europe in a time of crisis. Xi Jinping may have the opposite problem. Judging by the number of visits of European officials in recent weeks, Beijing will have to make multiple phone calls to understand the EU's position in an emergency.

Within two weeks, China welcomed the leaders of Spain and France, the president of the EU Commission, and the foreign minister of Germany (a fifth visit, by the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, was cancelled at the last minute).

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The different, even conflicting visions of EU-China relations expressed during these visits were seen by most observers as yet another public image setback and a confirmation that the EU is far from a 'strategic' international actor.

Although not completely unjustified, these analyses largely misunderstand the nature of the challenge that the emerging competition between the US and China poses to the EU.

When confronted with a seemingly impossible choice between security, values and economic interests, as the EU is now, using diversified messages to engage different audiences is a rational tactic for any actor wishing to avoid being cornered by foes and taken for granted by partners.

Consider the different messages the EU conveyed to China (and, indirectly, to the US) in Beijing. Chinese leaders were treated to the entire range of European opinion: from encouraging words about their Ukraine peace plan from Pedro Sanchez to Ursula von der Leyen firmly calling on China to respect the international order, and from weariness of US 'Messianism' from French president Emmanuel Macron to German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock calling for respect of the integrity of Taiwan.

Some like to see this as emblematic of the EU's notorious foreign policy incoherence.

Yet, it is unclear why these goals — hoping for peace in Ukraine while supporting Kyiv, opposing change in the status of Taiwan and urging China to respect international rules while keeping communication with Beijing open — should be seen as incompatible with each other.

Perhaps they appear so to those who embrace a polarising Cold War logic in international affairs. If the US and China have decided to view the world in these terms however, nothing says the EU should have to do the same.

A poly-centric and (literally) multilingual foreign policy is, thus, the right statecraft tool for a power that won't allow its interests to be defined by the geopolitical competition of others.

The EU is after all far from the only actor in world politics navigating crosscutting political and economic interests and values. Even the staunchly Atlanticist UK has attempted, under Rishi Sunak, to tone down the vibrant anti-China rhetoric of the Boris Johnson and Liz Truss years in the hope of keeping channels of economic exchange open.

At the same time, projecting a diverse set of values and preferences internationally reflects the variety of opinion among 27 member-states with different strategic and economic priorities.

Judging the EU by the standards of nation-states like the US and China misunderstands the nature of European foreign policy and underestimates its ability to make the most from nuance in a world of black-and-white polarisation. True, the internal heterogeneity of foreign policy voices may lead often to indecision. But it is also a rich toolbox of discourses and argumentations from which the EU can choose when engaging various actors in different circumstances.

In sum, the ability to use different foreign policy discourses is the EU's biggest asset. It keeps a systemic rival like China on its toes, while signalling to a partner like the US that Europe has its own distinct interests to defend. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the EU's diverse foreign policy message is the sign of a union that makes its own choices, rather than allowing others to impose their choices on it.

Author bio

Dr Angelos Chryssogelos is senior lecturer in politics at London Metropolitan University and research associate of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, the official think-tank of the centre-right European People's Party.


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


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