GSSR Reports: The Complicated EU-China Relationship

EU and PRC flags. Photo Credit: Friends of Europe.

‘How does Europe think about China?’ This was the grand question that Georgetown’s Evan Medeiros posed to experts gathered at the October 22nd US-China Conference: Global Views on China and US-China Strategic Competition. Hosted by the Asian Studies Program, the conference’s second panel, “Views from Europe,” featured François Godement of Institut Montaigne, as well as Janka Oertel and Andrew Small, both of The German Marshall Fund of the United States. The discussion focused on economic and security concerns stemming from Beijing, demonstrating the way these issues are intertwined within Europe’s debate on China. “China is more than a foreign policy issue,” argued Oertel. Whereas China used to be “nicely boxable” within Germany’s Foreign Office, Oertel believes that relations with the Chinese are now a “systemic question.”

Godement, Oertel, and Small began by sharing national perspectives from each of their home countries: France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, respectively. Godement provided the wider context for the French bilateral relationship with China, highlighting President Emmanuel Macron’s desire to cooperate with Beijing on multilateral challenges, such as climate change. Paris has also proposed cooperation with Beijing in Africa, largely on economic issues like infrastructure, but on security and governance as well. Despite these promising initiatives, however, Godement lamented China’s underwhelming response.

Oertel struck a similarly pessimistic tone as she reflected on her experience in Berlin. She explained that Beijing’s effort to turn China into a manufacturing hub, the Made in China 2025 initiative, is concerning for German industry. Not only does it put at risk the “massive success” of German companies, especially in the automotive and chemical sectors, but it perpetuates a feeling of both “broken promises” and Germany “not being treated fairly” from certain Chinese economic practices. Given the premium Germany places on economic matters, the Chinese initiative has “rung the alarm bells,” which, according to Oertel, gets the immediate attention of policymakers in Berlin. More recently, however, Berlin has begun to backtrack because it fears economic volatility from ongoing threats of a trade war with the United States. This concern, Oertel argued, makes a “proactive approach…much less likely,” as German industry and policymakers seek to hedge their bets.

Like Oertel, Small navigated a topic that is accompanied by great uncertainty, but this time within the context of the United Kingdom’s most pressing political issue: Brexit. He described the limited bandwidth of the British government to manage other issues as the United Kingdom settles how and when the country will leave the European Union. Combined with the associated political volatility, London is unable to make any decision that has strategic consequences. In the meantime, Small highlighted the evolution of ‘China thinking’ within the British government. Under David Cameron, he explained, the United Kingdom was more concerned with economic development, ushering in the so-called “Golden Era” of UK-China relations. Once Theresa May became prime minister, however, London viewed cooperation with, and concerns about, China largely through a security lens, primarily given the Prime Minister’s six-year tenure as Home Secretary.

At the EU level, balancing these economic and security considerations has become increasingly complicated. Godement emphasized the “risk of division” within Europe due to differences among EU member states regarding their “perception of threat” from China. Whereas some member states, like Greece, view business with China as an economic opportunity, for others, like France, there are also security repercussions.

Perhaps the leading example of this predicament is the ‘5G debate,’ which sees member states assessing the role for Chinese telecommunications firms in supplying technology for next generation cellular networks. Although France has already categorized this discussion within its “national security box,” according to Oertel, many member states, including Germany and the United Kingdom, have not. She described that this “wait and see” approach is understandable for London, given the all-encompassing nature of Brexit, but emphasized that there is no such excuse for Germany.

The 5G debate, Oertel explained, has a strategic component that Berlin is unwilling to tackle, especially as Germany faces unwanted pressure from the United States to prevent Chinese firms from supplying the technology. Small echoed the burden London faces, describing how the initial decision, since deferred, split the British cabinet. Those with an economic portfolio were in favor of using Chinese firms, Small explained, whereas those with a foreign policy or security brief were opposed. As a result, the prime minister was the deciding vote and, according to Small, tilted the balance in favor of working with Huawei, effectively ranking concerns regarding the future of the British economy over potential security ramifications. Once London and Berlin do finalize their decisions, however, Oertel emphasized that it will not just have repercussions for the United Kingdom and Germany, but will also influence how smaller member states proceed.   

Despite these ongoing tensions, however, the panelists did note a positive direction in the EU debate on China. Godement described how “Europe has begun getting its act together on words,” issuing a European Commission communication to the European Parliament and the European Council that moves the debate forward. The communication labels China a “systemic rival” because of its form of government, stressing the need for “alternative models,” but also recognizes the importance of Beijing as a “cooperation partner” in various policy arenas. As Europe, and the European Union specifically, balances the economic and security repercussions of China’s role in international affairs, it is certainly a topic that member states will confront more often. China is becoming more central to the European agenda, argues Godement; it is simply impossible to have one meeting in Brussels that does not touch on China in some way.

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