The Battle of the Narratives: How the EU sees China in the “Von der Leyen” era

Víctor Rico Reche

7 mins - 5 de Febrero de 2024, 07:00

Is China a partner, a competitor, or a systemic rival? This is the question the European Union (EU) has been asking itself for almost a decade now, and its answer today remains the same as the one it set out on 12 March 2019: all three. According to the Joint Communication ‘A Strategic Perspective’ of that date, China is both a cooperative and negotiating partner, an economic competitor, and a systemic rival. 

Relations have changed, Europe is now more alert to the geostrategic challenges posed by China’s growing influence, but recent geopolitical developments do not seem to have changed, for now, how the EU refers to Beijing. That is, at least, what the results of the study we have conducted by analysing the speeches of the main leaders of both political entities during the first seven semesters of the ‘Von der Leyen Commission’ (from 1 December 2019 to 30 June 2023) say.

At the beginning of his term as EU high representative, Josep Borrell warned that “Europe has been too naïve in its relations with China”. Shortly afterwards, during the 22nd bilateral summit between the two powers, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, also warned that “we do not share the same values, political systems or approach to multilateralism”. Months later, after the unexpected global pandemic of COVID-19 and, somewhat later, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Beijing’s position on the matter, these fears would become concerns with geo-strategic implications of the highest order. Voices calling for a hardening of Europe’s position would grow louder, and the debate on questioning the trinomial “partner, competitor, and rival” would be increasingly present in European debates.

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To better understand whether institutional discourse and perceptions of the other have evolved, we analysed, on the one hand, the speeches of European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen and High Representative and Commission Vice-President Josep Borrell. On the other hand, we likewise examined those of the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, his foreign minister until December 2022, Wang Yi, and his successor in the post until July 2023, Qin Gang.

The first result of the study suggests that yes, the EU has been talking more and more about China as the ‘Von der Leyen Commission’ mandate has progressed, and more issues have confronted Brussels and Beijing. While at the beginning of its mandate European leaders made only three thematic speeches on China (or on one of its territories, recognised or claimed), during the seventh semester we find as many as 10 speeches on the subject. Interestingly, on the Chinese side, speeches on the EU have also evolved quantitatively, but in the opposite direction. In general, China speaks much less about the EU and at a lower political level, and unlike the EU, it has done so even less after the geopolitical moments of heightened tension between the two. 

Figure 1.- Direct and indirect references to the "other" as "partner", "competitor", or "rival" between 1 December 2019 and 30 June 2023


Figure 2.- Direct and indirect references to the EU as a "partner" between 1 December 2019 and 30 June 2023

This opposite reaction to the widening discrepancies can be read in many ways. One of the reasons that might explain it has to do with the way culture influences the two blocs’ political communication. Throughout the period under review, the Chinese narrative towards the EU has been much more positive than that of the EU towards China. While our study shows that Brussels has mostly referred to China with terms associated with the concept of ‘partner’ 53.5% of the time, one-third of the time it has referred to China with terms associated with the concept of ‘rival’ and one-third with terms associated with the concept of ‘competitor’. In contrast, surprisingly, China has invariably referred to the EU in terms associated with the concept of ‘partner’, which seems to show a very different picture of their relations. As the December 2018 ‘China’s Policy Paper on the EU’ put it: the two ‘share far more commonalities than differences’, a line from which Beijing has not budged since.

Figure 3.- Evolution of direct and indirect references to China as a "partner", "competitor", and "rival" between 1 December 2019 and 30 June 2023


Figure 4.- Evolution of direct and indirect references to the EU as a "partner" between 1 December 2019 and 30 June 2023

This may reflect a cultural trait very much present in Confucian traditions, where avoiding direct confrontation is a way of protecting relationships and cultivating harmony. In contrast, for parts of Western Europe, open disagreement is not only accepted, but is part of the dialectical reasoning style of truth-telling that is part of the European tradition, as Erin Meyer explains in her book The Cultural Map: The 8 scales of our cultural barriers and how to get around them (2014). This would explain why, when faced with political situations that highlight differences of interests and visions, the EU seems to have chosen to address these discrepancies openly, while China has preferred to avoid public debate on the matter. 

We also see that although throughout the period under analysis the concept of ‘partner’ has been the one most used by both sides, when we focus on the predominant themes in these discourses, the image they convey is different. In the case of the EU, the most predominant themes in their speeches reflect issues that confront both sides, such as ‘Security and Defence’ (predominant after the war in Ukraine), ‘Human Rights’, or ‘Hong Kong’, while on the Chinese side they are issues that the EU considers a source of economic competition, such as the ‘Silk Road Initiative’ or ‘trade’. 

The last of the conclusions of this study also shows a significant difference between the discourses of Von der Leyen and Josep Borrell with respect to China, and those of Xi Jinping, Wang Yi, and Qin Gang with respect to the EU. Von der Leyen referred to China mostly with terms associated with the concept of ‘partner’ (60.8% of the time, compared to 29.4% of the time as ‘competitor’ and only 9.8% of the time as ‘rival’). In contrast, Josep Borrell has alternated references to these three concepts in a more balanced way when referring to China (49.5% of the time with terms associated with the concept of ‘partner’, 30.1% with ‘competitor’, 20.4% with ‘rival’), reflecting a tougher position but also closer to the European approach adopted in March 2019. On China’s side, the main difference lies in the number of times that both actors have referred to the EU, this being almost exclusively the monopoly of Foreign Minister Wang Yi (121 out of 128 mentions of the EU, in this case as ‘partner’). 

Analysis of the results suggests that the EU shows greater interest in China, and at a higher hierarchical level, despite projecting a more multifaceted and less benevolent image of China. On the contrary, the results do not seem to point to a progressive predominance of rivalry, but rather to reflect a different way of dealing with the growing discrepancies between Brussels and Beijing. What we can conclude is that understanding both what China communicates and what it does not seems as important as analysing its actions. Knowing what the consequences of its discourse are, too. As Josep Borrell pointed out during the EU 2022 Annual Ambassadors’ Conference, the battle of narratives is not a minor one, but one of “who is going to win people’s spirits and souls”. A “partner for cooperation and negotiation, an economic competitor and a rival in the battle of ideas” would perhaps be a better definition of the current state of affairs.

Víctor Rico Reche, expert in Political Communication and International Relations
*The information and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Commission.

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