When new Chinese leaders rise to power, they choose the first foreign capitals they visit carefully. So Premier Li Qiang’s current tour of Germany and France underscores how important improving ties with Europe, in particular its two most powerful countries, is for China and President Xi Jinping.
The logic is obvious. While Xi hasn’t written off hopes of steadying ties with the US, as evidenced by his meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Beijing this week, he knows the issues that divide the two superpowers are too great to be bridged anytime soon. Avoiding further escalation is perhaps the best he can hope for.
Europe appears to offer more fertile ground. Despite growing hawkishness, major European countries including Germany and France still do not view China as an existential security threat. Most importantly, they have little interest in being dragged into a US-China cold war, let alone a hot war over Taiwan — a position most directly expressed by French President Emmanuel Macron. Their economic interests in China are also far more significant than those of the US in relative terms, thus presenting a clear opportunity for Beijing to exploit.
Keeping Europe on the sidelines of the US-China standoff would greatly weaken Washington’s hand. From Xi’s point of view, the recent convergence of trans-Atlantic views on China is alarming. Both the US and the European Union have adopted the same mantra — “de-risking’ — to argue for reducing economic ties with the mainland. Europe is not far behind the US in tightening control over technology exports and inbound Chinese investments. Even on Taiwan — the issue most likely to provoke China — senior European officials have become more critical of Chinese conduct and more supportive of the self-ruled island.
But persuading Europe to remain neutral, as Xi himself has implicitly urged, will not come cheap. Friendly rhetoric from officials such as Li, and some sweetheart deals for European companies, are not likely to suffice.
Serious economic disputes divide China and Europe, which has long complained about restricted access to the Chinese market, Beijing’s generous subsidies to its firms and the country’s poor record on intellectual property protection. China will have to make a good-faith effort to address those concerns if it’s to have any hope of maintaining credibility with Europe.
European governments will also need to see much stronger action from China to combat climate change. In recent years, tensions with the US and energy security concerns have dampened China’s ambitions on this front. Xi did not even attend COP26, the UN climate summit, in November 2021. Recent reports that China is building six times as many coal-fired power plants as the rest of the world combined have drawn widespread condemnation.
Another issue Europe feels strongly about is China’s poor human-rights record. While the US often tempers its support for human rights abroad depending on geopolitical considerations, Europe has long pursued a more purist approach, leading to frequent run-ins with Beijing. In 2021, the EU levied sanctions on China for its ethnic repression in Xinjiang. China’s immediate counter-sanctions doomed the ratification of a landmark investment agreement China and the EU had just signed that would have dealt a heavy blow to the US.
Above all, European nations deeply resent China hiding behind a façade of neutrality while continuing to support Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Unless China rescinds its backing or plays a genuinely constructive role in persuading Moscow to end the war on terms acceptable to Europe, they will hold China at least partly responsible for the gravest threat to their security since World War Two.
It is inconceivable that China will, at this stage, abandon Russia in exchange for goodwill in Europe. For Beijing, Moscow is an irreplaceable partner in the Sino-American strategic rivalry. China has little room to maneuver on human rights, either. Few Chinese leaders want to be seen as caving to Western pressure and repudiating the party’s zero-tolerance policy on dissent over the past decade.
That leaves only trade and climate change as inducements for China to keep Europe out of the coalition the US has been building with remarkable success.
China would be wise to keep its expectations for success low. Some concessions on those two fronts would be better than nothing. For its own reasons — in particular, fear of pushing Xi completely into Putin’s embrace — Europe is unlikely to radically toughen its China policy in the short-term.
Over the long run, however, the price of Europe’s strategic neutrality will likely be higher than China thinks — and probably more than Xi is willing to pay.
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