Watching China in Europe - March 2023

February 28, 2023

Welcome to Watching China in Europe, a monthly update from The German Marshall Fund of the United States’ (GMF) Asia Program. Now more than ever, transatlantic China policy needs clarity and cohesion. In this monthly newsletter, Noah Barkin, GMF senior visiting fellow and Rhodium Group managing editor, provides his personal observations and analysis on the most pressing China-related developments and activities throughout Europe.

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Shattered Illusions

European leaders in recent years have taken to declaring an end to the era of naivety toward China. But wishful thinking has persisted despite the steady erosion of the geopolitical landscape amid the pandemic, the unwinding of decades of globalization, and the war in Ukraine. One lingering hope was that the United States and China could manage their differences under President Joe Biden, a pragmatist with a lengthy résumé in foreign affairs, and a team of capable, experienced diplomats. Another was that China’s relationship with Russia would ultimately prove to be a fragile marriage of convenience that would crack under pressure. The past few weeks, bookended by the shooting down of a Chinese balloon over the United States and the publication of Beijing’s 12-point plan for resolving the Ukraine conflict, should go a long way toward extinguishing these last glimmers of hope.

If anyone in Europe still harbors illusions about acting as a balancing middle power between the United States and China, or prying Chinese President Xi Jinping away from his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, they should have their head examined. The remainder of 2023 is likely to be especially challenging for Europe as the war in Ukraine enters its second year, pressure from Washington to decouple from China mounts, and tensions over Taiwan build in the run-up to a presidential election on the island in January 2024. It is a discomforting picture, one that will require new realism in Brussels, Berlin, Paris, and beyond.

Let’s start with a closer look at China’s nascent “charm offensive” with Europe, which shifted into a higher gear over the past weeks.

"Verging on the Farcical"

Beijing’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, may have garnered most of the attention with his appearance at the Munich Security Conference in mid-February. But he was just one of dozens of Chinese diplomats, economic officials, and top military brass who fanned out across Europe in recent weeks, pressing interlocutors in Berlin, Brussels, Paris, Rome, Copenhagen, and elsewhere to put aside differences and embrace closer cooperation. It was the clearest sign yet that China is prioritizing engagement with Europe after years of bullying, coercion, and neglect. But there are no concrete signs that Beijing is prepared to move on the issues that matter most to Europe. One EU official with whom I spoke cited talk that Beijing was considering unilaterally removing its sanctions on EU lawmakers in an attempt to resuscitate the stalled EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, although he expressed doubts about whether such a move would significantly alter the debate in Brussels. “The emptiness of the charm offensive is becoming so obvious that it is verging on the farcical. The cognitive dissonance is extraordinary,” the official said. A German official added: “We’ve seen a more friendly tone, but on substance they have not moved a millimeter.”

Still, the Europeans are committed to continuing the conversation with Beijing, especially as the United States and China seem incapable of dialogue. Europeans are ready to talk although they are dismissive of Beijing’s position paper on Ukraine and getting fed up with the increasingly strident tone used to bash the United States. Petra Sigmund, the Asia-Pacific director in the German foreign ministry whose team is making final revisions to Berlin’s China strategy, travelled to Beijing at the start of this week to assess the mood. Sigmund’s boss, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, is jockeying with her Italian and British counterparts, and the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, to pin down dates for a visit ahead of the April G7 foreign ministers meeting in Japan. And French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni are planning their own trips.

Fatalistic Assessment

The outreach is happening for several reasons, beyond the simple fact that the end of China’s zero-COVID policy makes travel there possible. The first is the war in Ukraine and growing concerns about China’s unwavering political support for Russia. The chummy messages and pictures coming out of Wang Yi’s post-Munich meetings with Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow were discouraging for Europeans who thought they saw emerging Sino-Russian cracks. Xi’s reported plans to go to Moscow to meet with Putin, his invitation to Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, and his continued refusal to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy despite repeated requests from Kyiv for a meeting are also unwelcome news. Beijing’s assurances that it is a neutral observer of the conflict and only seeking peace ring hollow.

Another reason is growing concern about the deterioration of US-China relations since the balloon incident. In their recent meetings with Chinese interlocutors, European officials noted a bleak, fatalistic assessment of the relationship with the United States. Visiting Chinese officials have made clear, according to participants, that they no longer see any possibility to improve ties. That has coincided with a series of documents on the Chinese foreign ministry’s website condemning, in patronizing detail, decades of US “hegemony” and economic polarization. Anti-US propaganda by government officials and state media has also increased. “We would all like to see the temperature lowered,” the EU official said. “The balloon incident was a perfect illustration of how playing to the public gallery on both sides can quickly spiral out of control.”

Blinken Skepticism

The concern is not just about the strident tone of China’s diplomacy. Officials in the big European capitals see US domestic politics playing a greater role in shaping the Biden administration’s response to China, as the countdown to the 2024 US presidential election begins. They point to the White House’s skittish response to the Chinese balloon but also Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s message in Munich that China is considering supplying Russia with arms and ammunition, an allegation that Biden himself appeared to play down days later. “Some view the message the Americans delivered in Munich with a certain amount of skepticism,” the German official told me, suggesting it might have been more effective if delivered privately. “We are in a tit-for-tat downward spiral between the US and China that could get very uncomfortable,” the official said, adding that a possible visit by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to Taiwan would increase the temperature further.

The tenser relations between Beijing and Washington become, some officials acknowledge, the more challenging for Europe to chart a third way. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz never tires of repeating that the world of tomorrow will be multipolar, and his recent trips to India and Brazil were meant to underscore this vision. At the moment, however, there are only two real superpowers, and the oxygen in Europe becomes quite thin when they are sniping at each other. European capitals will be coming under intense pressure this year from both Washington and Beijing as they consider the shape of their future economic relationship with China and how to balance it with national security. I expect the next EU-US Trade and Technology Council meeting, slated for June, and an economic security debate among G7 trade ministers in October, to be especially important in this regard.

Diplomatic Departures

In the meantime, German government officials are making final revisions to their China strategy. People involved in the process say it is moving at “German speed”, or extremely slowly. The foreign ministry wants to release the strategy before Berlin holds government consultations with Beijing, most likely in the late spring. But a failure to resolve differences within Germany’s coalition government over the country’s National Security Strategy, which is due to be published first, has made the timing of the China paper difficult to predict. Some officials see a risk, given tentative plans by Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger to travel to Taiwan in March, that more risk-averse colleagues in Berlin may be hesitant to issue a toughly worded China strategy shortly before the bilateral consultations. This could lead to further delays in publishing the strategy.

Another concern, expressed by officials in various capitals, is that Petra Sigmund and several senior officials in her team are due to switch to new diplomatic posts in the summer. Around the same time, Gunnar Wiegand, the EU’s top Asia diplomat in Brussels, is expected to retire from the European External Action Service. This means that the diplomats who have quietly driven European China policy over the past five years will be moving on at a pivotal time. I would not underestimate the importance of finding capable successors with extensive experience in China or the Indo-Pacific region.