29th Sep 2023


EU's China 'de-risking' strategy: a roadmap without directions

  • China is the largest partner for EU imports of goods, but in return only the third-largest for EU exports. By the end of 2022, the trade deficit amounted to €27.4bn (Photo: Europan Commission)
Listen to article

With Ukraine at the top of the EU's agenda and its dependence on China growing, European leaders tried to present a united front at their summit this week in Brussels on where to take the relationship.

Paradoxically, the news is that nothing particularly new came out of the two-day summit. The final published conclusions of the EU leaders' meeting have not changed from the draft version seen by EUobserver and dated Wednesday.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Although billed as a new strategic discussion, there was not much discussion — as migration overshadowed the rest of the agenda.

But also because matters related to relations with Beijing were concluded before the summit even started, EU diplomats told EUobserver — so details on boundaries, clear definitions, economic security concerns, and possible export controls were not on the table on Thursday and Friday (29-30 June).

Member states again called on China to put pressure on Russia to end the war and withdraw its troops immediately, and expressed their worries about Taiwan and respect for human rights.

Yet the main consensus was once again: 'de-risking yes, decoupling no'.

"We need to de-risk, economically as well as diplomatically," EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told reporters at a press conference after the summit, meaning the EU wants to tackle its deep economic ties with China while keeping transparent issues where they agree and disagree.

The understanding was reached "quickly", showing "unity" towards China, EU Council president Charles Michel added. "We know what we want, and we are all on the same page".

Reducing the bloc's dependence on China, especially for critical raw materials, does not mean "decoupling or turning inwards", the conclusions document states.

For Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign affairs chief, de-risking is the EU's "duty" and "mission". One that will take a long time. "The sooner we start, the better," he said on the sidelines of the EU summit on Thursday (June 29).

Borrell added: "We don't need to negotiate with China about de-risking. We need to identify the risks and put a solution to them".

That was the extent of the EU leaders' discussion, which did not last long enough to expose any disunity among member states.

After Russia's invasion of Ukraine, diplomatic relations with China have become more complex than ever, and economic concerns have heightened — as the EU does not benefit as much as Beijing from this relationship.

"The European Union will seek to ensure a level playing field so that the trade and economic relationship is balanced, reciprocal and mutually beneficial," the conclusions read.

China is the largest partner for EU imports of goods, but in return only the third-largest for EU exports. By 2022, the EU's goods trade deficit reached €396bn.

Some voices, such as Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas, are proposing bolder measures to rebalance the playing field, such as relocating European supply chains from China.

"We also see what happens when you're connected to partners who don't share the same values. Given the security situation we're in, [...] make sure you're connected to friends," Kallas said on arriving at the summit.

Since the launch of the EU's Green Deal plans, the situation has become more worrying, due to the huge increase in imports, such as the lithium needed for the batteries of electric vehicles, or the solar photovoltaic panels that will enable the energy transition to renewables.

Beijing's own industrial policy has also shifted towards self-sufficiency and local production, reducing imports from European countries such as Germany.

Currently, the EU plan is to keep looking at China as a partner, competitor and systemic rival, but how to maintain the EU's relationship with its largest partner while reducing the diplomatic and economic risks remains a roadmap lacking directions.


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

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 the US that Europe has its own interests.

EU summit to sweat over Russian frozen asset legal worries

The internal military crisis seen in Russia the last weekend will be "the elephant in the room" at the EU summit, when leaders discuss the war and how to use Russian assets for its reconstruction, an EU official said.

BRICS summit: no Putin, but leaders plan to expand bloc

Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa are meeting in Johannesburg to assess the group's expansion — and boost their currencies against the West. Russian president Vladimir Putin is the only leader not expected to attend in person.

EU’s €500m gender violence plan falls short, say auditors

The 'Spotlight Initiative' was launched in 2017 with a budget of €500 million to end all forms of violence or harmful practices against women and girls in partner countries, but so far it has had "little impact", say EU auditors.

Latest News

  1. Added-value for Russia diamond ban, as G7 and EU prepare sanctions
  2. EU states to agree on asylum crisis bill, say EU officials
  3. Poland's culture of fear after three years of abortion 'ban'
  4. Time for a reset: EU regional funding needs overhauling
  5. Germany tightens police checks on Czech and Polish border
  6. EU Ombudsman warns of 'new normal' of crisis decision-making
  7. How do you make embarrassing EU documents 'disappear'?
  8. Resurgent Fico hopes for Slovak comeback at Saturday's election

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  2. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators, industry & healthcare experts at the 24th IMDRF session, September 25-26, Berlin. Register by 20 Sept to join in person or online.
  3. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  4. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA
  5. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators & industry experts at the 24th IMDRF session- Berlin September 25-26. Register early for discounted hotel rates
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersGlobal interest in the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations – here are the speakers for the launch

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers20 June: Launch of the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations
  2. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  3. ICLEISeven actionable measures to make food procurement in Europe more sustainable
  4. World BankWorld Bank Report Highlights Role of Human Development for a Successful Green Transition in Europe
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic summit to step up the fight against food loss and waste
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersThink-tank: Strengthen co-operation around tech giants’ influence in the Nordics

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us