Watching China in Europe - November 2020

9 min read
Welcome to Watching China in Europe, a new monthly update from GMF’s Asia Program.

Welcome to Watching China in Europe, a new monthly update from GMF’s Asia Program. Now more than ever, the transatlantic partners need clarity and cohesion when it comes to China policy. In this monthly newsletter, Noah Barkin—a veteran journalist based in Berlin and a senior visiting fellow at GMF—will provide his personal observations and analysis on the most pressing China-related developments and activities throughout Europe. Click here to subscribe

The Macron Trap

In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron laid out his ideas for reforming Europe in a 2-1/2 hour speech at the Sorbonne University, offering a blueprint to Germany, which had held an election only days before. Berlin, however, got bogged down in messy coalition talks that dragged on for months. It never really engaged with Macron or gave him an adequate response. I mention this episode because I see worrying signs that a similar dynamic could play out in transatlantic discussions over China if Joe Biden is elected president this week. Like Macron three years ago, Biden is promising to work with Germany and other EU member states on a complex and hugely consequential policy challenge. For Macron it was overhauling Europe. For Biden it is forging a transatlantic agenda on China. For this to work, Germany will have to play ball. It will have to come up with its own ideas for what transatlantic cooperation on China should look like. It will have to rally other EU member states around a common strategy. And it will have to be ready to engage with a new U.S. administration – if we get one – from day one. In the end, Germany will have to know what it wants – not just what it doesn’t want. I’m not sure we’re there yet.

For one thing, there does not appear to be a great deal of urgency in Berlin for putting together a list of priority agenda items on China that Europe could present to Biden. Yes, Merkel did call an EU summit for mid-November to discuss China policy. That would have been the ideal forum for such a discussion. But the meeting was cancelled almost as soon as it was announced due to the surge in COVID-19 infections across Europe. When pressed on the issue, a senior German diplomat told me that Berlin could come up with a list of transatlantic agenda items for China in a few days, with WTO reform at the top. “In any case there is no rush. If Biden does win, his administration is unlikely to be fully up and running until the early summer,” I was told. That may be true. But working through the highly complex issues around technology engagement with China will take time. So will forging a common European line on these issues. In a speech last week, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer warned against a policy of "unilateral isolation and decoupling" from China and floated the idea of a US-EU trade deal. But a debate that goes beyond preserving free trade will be needed. This doesn’t appear to be happening.

Another complication for a future transatlantic discussion is the lack of clear signals from the Biden camp. Macron knew what he wanted to do with Europe and offered Germany and European partners detailed policy proposals. But as several German and EU diplomats stressed to me, there are China hawks and doves in the Biden team and little clarity about who will have the upper hand. Biden himself has sent different signals on China throughout the campaign. Last year, he said China was “not competition for us”, before describing them this year as a “serious competitor” (but not an opponent). In his most recent debate with Donald Trump, he promised to “get China to play by international laws”, when it has become abundantly clear in recent years that Beijing will not. Signals from Biden’s entourage suggest they will be looking for input from Europe and other allies about how to proceed with China – on trade, technology and other aspects of the relationship. That will be welcomed in some capitals after four years of “America First”. But it also means that Europe will need to figure out where it stands.

What worries me more than any lack of clarity from the Biden camp, however, is that Germany – as it was for many months after Macron’s speech in 2017 – will be “mit sich selbst beschäftigt” (preoccupied with itself). Next year is what is known in Germany as a “Superwahljahr” (a year full of elections).  In addition to the federal election in September, six of Germany’s 16 states are due to vote in 2021 – the largest number in a decade. The country’s politicians will be focused inward. Merkel will be riding off into the sunset. And the uncertainty over who might replace her – exacerbated by an increasingly fraught contest to pick a new leader of her conservative party – will be high. This will make it all the more difficult for Germany to engage. If he is elected, Biden might want to make his first call to Macron for a little advice.

Connectivity Wars

Ursula von der Leyen came into office a year ago vowing to turn the European Commission into a geopolitical force. But on the issue of connectivity, where the EU is ideally placed to project its economic power and values – not to mention create a compelling counter-narrative to China's – her Commission has been silent. Connectivity is not a sexy term. But get beyond the drab catchphrase and the significance is apparent. It is about ports, electricity grids and telecommunications networks – the critical infrastructure that is, in the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, vital to the resilience of economies and political systems around the world. China realized the importance of connectivity years ago, unveiling its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. Five years later, the EU produced its response to the BRI (while earnestly assuring everyone that it was not one) in the form of a joint communication entitled “Connecting Europe and Asia – Building blocks for an EU Strategy”. Now, a turf war has erupted in Brussels over the future of that strategy.

Germany, backed by France, other member states and officials at the European External Action Service (EEAS), views it as woefully inadequate and is pushing for a revamp. Speaking at a MERICS conference in September, Michael Clauss, the German ambassador to the EU, called for something “very visible” that is “at the level of Belt and Road”. The current strategy, he said, “sounds like it was invented by bureaucrats, which it obviously was”. Among the ideas that have been floated are a catchy new name (the French have proposed “Magellan”), a broader geographic focus (including Africa and Latin America), and a high-ranking special envoy to complement Romana Vlahutin, the Croatian diplomat who serves as EEAS ambassador for connectivity. It would involve robust funding commitments (a Franco-German non-paper last year called for the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and national financial institutions to play an important role). But above all, a new strategy would replace dreamy language about spreading peace and prosperity with clear geopolitical intent. As several diplomats pointed out to me, the 2018 strategy now feels like it was produced in a different era – before the 5G debate erupted in Europe, before the EU labeled China a “systemic rival”, before wolf warriors and mask diplomacy, before the national security law in Hong Kong, and before the confrontation between the United States and China shifted into overdrive.

One would expect a geopolitical revamp to be right up von der Leyen’s alley. But I was told by numerous EU officials that her cabinet, preoccupied with Europe’s Green Deal and the pandemic, has refused to engage on the issue. Not only were German-French demands for a special envoy based in the Commission ignored, but the term “connectivity” did not appear once in the mission letters von der Leyen sent out to her new commissioners. Von der Leyen has also refused to intervene in a tug-of-war between the EEAS and the Commission's Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development, which helps oversee the disbursement of EU development aid outside the bloc. DG DEVCO, as it is known, has vigorously defended the status quo, fearful that a more robust, geopolitical approach would hand strategic control over foreign projects to diplomats in the EEAS, I was told by Brussels-based diplomats and parliamentarians. Senior officials at DG DEVCO deny that, dismissing the dispute as a petty difference of opinion over branding. But others believe institutional infighting is obscuring big-picture goals. “This turf war is an expression of the lack of geopolitical thinking in some corners of the Commission,” according to Reinhard Bütikofer, a member of the European Parliament who just completed his own proposals on connectivity that will flow into a forthcoming report for the Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs.

In the coming weeks, Clauss is planning to take his ideas for a connectivity revamp to COREPER, the forum where ambassadors from EU member states meet to discuss policy. The goal is to get clear language on an overhaul of the strategy in European Council conclusions in December. But his struggles show that Brussels still has a ways to go in shifting to a geopolitical mindset – and in pushing back against China’s global ambitions.

Chinese Influence Report

Lastly, I thought it might be helpful to provide some context in the wake of a story by Axios last month about a German intelligence report on Chinese influence from 2018 that had been hushed up by a top official. The sources for the report were two former U.S. intelligence officials. What I know is that when Sigmar Gabriel became German foreign minister in 2017, he introduced regular coordination meetings on China across government ministries. In parallel, a report was put together in 2018 that looked at Chinese influence activities throughout Germany. Based on the recommendations from the report, the federal government began an awareness-raising campaign in German cities, states, universities and research institutes. One product of this exercise was a report published in September by the umbrella organization for German universities, laying out new guidelines for its members when working with Chinese counterparts.

The broader 2018 report on Chinese influence activities was described to me as a fluid document that is being updated continuously. Until now, the discussion about Chinese influence has taken place largely behind closed doors. Germany’s domestic intelligence agency produces an annual report that includes a brief overview of Chinese espionage activities in the country. And on rare occasions, it has gone public with specific accusations – for example, two years ago when it reported that Chinese intelligence was using fake LinkedIn accounts to gather information on German politicians. But in general, the intelligence community has always kept its findings closely guarded. I’m told that there is now a debate within the government about whether the time has come for a more transparent approach. That could lead to more public naming and shaming - including of China.