Europe’s Choice on China

Noah Barkin

6 mins - 12 de Abril de 2023, 06:29

Over the past weeks, two of Europe’s leading political figures have put forward divergent visions for how the continent should approach its relationship with China. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Too often, in recent years, the European debate over China policy has been stifled by politicians who were reluctant to say in public what they really thought.

But of the two visions articulated by French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, only one offers a viable path forward for Europe.

Von der Leyen’s de-risking agenda, laid out in a speech in Brussels in late March, strikes a clear-eyed balance between the risks and opportunities of engagement with a country that the European Union has described as a 'systemic rival' for the past four years. It is an agenda which, if done right, could help Europe chart a path distinct from the one unfolding in Washington, while ensuring that the transatlantic alliance does not get torn apart.

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The speech, given days before von der Leyen joined Macron in Beijing for meetings with China’s President Xi Jinping, was hawkish by European standards. She pointed to China’s deepening partnership with Russia, its use of economic coercion to force countries like Lithuania to align with its political priorities, and human rights violations in the Xinjiang region that the United Nations has said may amount to crimes against humanity.

But she also took care to praise the country’s economic achievements and rich history. And she made clear that Europe stood ready to cooperate with China’s leadership on issues of mutual interest, including climate change.

At the heart of von der Leyen’s agenda was the message that Europe must develop its own strategy when it comes to economic engagement with China. She stressed that most trade with China was not problematic. But she also made clear that the EU must pare back dependencies on China that have left Europe more vulnerable to blackmail than it ever was from Russia, and adopt a more restrictive approach toward transfers of sensitive technologies that could be used by Beijing to modernize its military. 

Doing so would likely affect only a handful of EU countries that are home to leading edge technology companies. But it is a step that is vital for building a bridge between the EU and US on China policy. Following the export controls on advanced semiconductor equipment that the Biden administration unveiled on October 7th of last year, Washington is poised to roll out a series of new trade and investment restrictions targeting China over the course of 2023. These measures will present Europeans with a choice.

They can reject US concerns about technology transfers, continue with business as usual, and run the risk of being strong-armed by Washington. Or they can develop their own red lines for economic engagement with China, as von der Leyen is advocating, and try to convince Washington, together with Tokyo and other partners, to adopt narrow, targeted restrictions that are grounded in legitimate concerns about national security. 

Von der Leyen and her colleagues at the European Commission have understood that there is only one real option here. She is expected to present the first elements of an economic security strategy to EU-27 leaders at the next European Council meeting in June. It will be important for big European countries like Spain, whose prime minister Pedro Sanchez made his own trip to China last month, to fully engage in this process. Spain, like other EU states, has seen its trade deficit with China swell in recent years. In 2022, it imported more goods from China than it did from any other country, including EU partners like Germany and France.

The alternative to von der Leyen’s vision was articulated by Macron during his three-day visit to China, and in interviews he gave to journalists during the trip. It foresees Europe charting a middle path between Beijing and Washington. 

In Macron’s perfect world, Europe would push back against US efforts to restrict trade and investment with China on national security grounds, re-risking instead of de-risking. It would continue to rely on US military guarantees until Europe had achieved full strategic autonomy and was able to defend itself. And it would wash its hands of messy geopolitical entanglements far from its borders, like Taiwan. If this sounds a lot like having your gâteau and eating it too, then that’s because it is.

Europe, in the words of the French president, would be a force for peace and stability in the face of rising tensions between the US and China. It would achieve this by remaining fully engaged, even close, to Beijing. 'I think there is a mutual attraction between France and China, a fascination, a friendship, a path that is perhaps all our own,' Macron says in a video montage of his trip which seems to paint China as a close ally of France rather than a geopolitical rival that is partnering with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

It was Macron who declared in 2019 that Europe’s era of naivety with China had officially come to an end. There were no signs of that during his trip. Macron received not a single concession from Xi on Ukraine, the issue he cared about most. Despite this, he offered China’s leader one rhetorical gift after another, undermining a fragile European and transatlantic consensus on China. In the days after Macron’s visit, Beijing launched extensive military drills around Taiwan and sentenced two human rights lawyers to lengthy prison terms.

Both von der Leyen and Macron reject the idea of a far-reaching economic decoupling from China. Neither of them support the containment or isolation of the world’s second largest economy. Both look across the Atlantic and worry about the ever-sharper tone of the China debate in Washington, particularly on the issue of Taiwan.

But one offers a vision that could prevent a dangerous rupture over China, both within the European Union and between Europe and the US. The other risks leading to a weakened, divided Europe that is at the mercy of the big superpowers to the East and West. This is the opposite of what Macron himself says he wants. 

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