The Chinese-European conundrum

The recent visits by European leaders to China reveal indecisiveness. Maintaining trade with Beijing was mixed with vague talk of continental “strategic sovereignty.”

Europe China
The recent parade of European leaders visiting China left policy confusion in their wake. © Stephan Rürup

Europe’s top politicians have been making regular trips to meet with President Xi Jinping in Beijing. Among the recent visitors: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez Perez-Castejon and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

President Macron and Chancellor Scholz led large economic delegations to China. Ms. von der Leyen, whose visit got less attention, put more emphasis on human rights and the real issues of systemic rivalry. Consequently, President von der Leyen received second-rate protocol, while President Xi treated Mr. Macron with all the honors accorded to a head of state.

But not only Europeans are looking to Beijing. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil (known simply as Lula) also made a remarkable visit to the Middle Kingdom, fortifying the bilateral relationship.

The interests are strongly economic, as underlined by the composition of the delegations. The presence of businesspeople also shows the strong involvement of governments in the private sectors of their countries. The commercial emphasis suggests that governments want to continue trade and investment despite systemic differences, political risks, competing interests and human rights issues.

As tensions between Washington and Beijing intensify, President Xi’s courtship of European leaders can be seen as China’s attempt to neutralize Europe in the conflict between the two superpowers.

Because of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia and the West view each other with hostility. Ever-stricter sanctions from the United States and Europe are being applied on Russia. Russian assets in the West are frozen. The situation has made President Vladimir Putin more dependent on the benevolence of President Xi.

Beijing’s dilemma

But China also has its own problems. President Xi succeeded in concentrating his personal power, much like Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Anti-corruption measures were used to eliminate rivals or others who could potentially challenge Mr. Xi. This accumulation of responsibility and centralization of decision-making means that economic success will be crucial for him.

Unfortunately for President Xi, his Marxist focus on state-owned businesses will slow economic development and dampen prosperity. Increasing societal wealth was decisive for the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Faced with slower economic growth, exacerbated by the U.S.-led drive to ban high-tech exports to China, Mr. Xi’s legitimacy could face new pressures. The risk of isolation will need to be mitigated if foreign businesses look increasingly for alternatives to China.

For the first time since World War II, Washington is confronted with a naval power somewhat equal to its own.

The challenge for President Xi is now twofold: the legitimacy of the CCP is at risk and he is solely responsible. The conflict with the U.S., now the guardian of a free world and a global order, is a fact. China also has neighbors, namely Japan, South Korea and Vietnam, with difficult – and in the case of India, nearly hostile relations. This means that President Xi is also dependent on good relations with Moscow. Beijing will try to find more partners in the Global South. President Lula’s visit is a good case in point. Chinese policy will also seek to divide or at least neutralize Europe. This was Moscow’s policy during the Cold War.

The reunification of Taiwan with mainland China is a declared priority for Mr. Xi and it will be difficult for him to backtrack.

The U.S. faces a totally new situation in the Pacific. For the first time since World War II, Washington is confronted with a naval power somewhat equal to its own. Occupying Taiwan would strengthen Beijing’s position in the Pacific and give China direct access to the American West Coast. This would be intolerable for Washington.

Europe’s fickleness

Ms. von der Leyen stood out from many European politicians. At the end of March, she made a clear statement asking for a new European position toward China. She outlined the problem of decoupling economies while also being very open about Beijing’s assertiveness and systemic rivalry. She did not shy away from criticizing China’s shortcomings as a market economy and in freedom. She strongly implied that she saw the Middle Kingdom’s “Chinese Marxism” and “Socialist Market Economy” as a threat to the free world. It is, therefore, not surprising that President Xi played down her visit to Beijing.

The way that President Macron wants to establish European strategic sovereignty is wrong.

President Macron promotes Europe’s strategic sovereignty or autonomy and independence from the U.S. Sovereignty would, indeed, be the best basis for a great partnership in defense of the free world. But Mr. Macron’s message drew criticism for very valid grounds when he said that Europe should not follow the U.S. in defending Taiwan. President Macron’s stance on Taiwan sounded as if he was giving Beijing carte blanche to occupy the island. This is not a good attitude for a transatlantic partnership.

Mr. Scholz was quite diplomatic and interested in new forms of mitigating the risk of decoupling and maintaining commercial relationships. Ms. Baerbock unsuccessfully lectured Chinese leaders, who curtly replied that China supported German reunification and now Germany should reciprocate on Taiwan. One wonders why she bothered to make the trip.

It is unclear whether Spanish Prime Minister Sanchez’s visit was more for economic reasons or if he was simply positioning himself as a global statesman at home.

Achieving European strategic sovereignty

The idea of European strategic sovereignty is a great concept. Mr. Macron is not the first to bring it up. It was promoted by great Europeans such as General Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), Otto von Habsburg (1912-2011), Helmut Kohl (1930-2017) and several others.

This would work according to the above if is part of a transatlantic partnership on equal footing in defense of the free world. This assumption is still very valid. Unfortunately, the Old Continent has been neglecting foreign and security policy, including effective military deterrence. Major opportunities, especially following the implosion of the Soviet Union and the liberation of Central Europe, were missed. To the contrary, Europe – mainly Germany but also others including the United Kingdom – marginalized security policy.

The way that President Macron wants to establish European strategic sovereignty is wrong. It will not be achieved by acting against the U.S. And it will not be achieved through his concept of a core and a peripheral European Union while strongly promoting technocratic centralization. His almost hostile policies toward Central Europe are catastrophic and the results – in combination with German weakness – are why these nations consider the U.S. as the main guarantor of their security.

But we should not give up on Europe’s strategic sovereignty. With a coalition of the willing, the Old Continent could build the necessary strength. It could then be sovereign and autonomous in defending its eastern border and in its relations to the Global South. In a transatlantic partnership, it could then free the U.S. to concentrate on the challenges in the Pacific.

This might sound like an unrealistic, utopia vision, but an internal market was also considered utopian 50 years ago. A coalition of willing European states – not necessarily institutionally dependent on Brussels and preferably with London’s participation – could certainly achieve sovereignty in concert with a strong transatlantic partnership if it takes the right steps.

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