Grzegorz Stec is an analyst in the Brussels’ office of the Mercator Institute for China Studies. He was the founder of Brussels-based non-profit platform “EU-China Hub.”
When Beijing began wooing Brussels in the middle of last year, it initially started with relatively small moves.
The shift came after the United States imposed tech export controls, and COVID-19 had caused China’s economy to sputter. And Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi’s recent tour d’Europe is the latest in this ongoing charm offensive, spreading messages of reengagement and paying lip service to the European Union’s strategic autonomy.
However, it’s important to note that Beijing still primarily sees its relationship with the EU as a part of its geopolitical contest with the United States, and Europeans would do well to always keep that in mind. In fact, it’s time to finally recognize Beijing’s stance toward the bloc for what it actually is — strategic stalling.
Beyond a change in style, China doesn’t seem too eager to offer points of substance to win the EU over. It has reopened diplomatic channels and embraced a more approachable rhetoric — most notably in the outreach spree by its new Ambassador to the EU Fu Cong — but none of this has yet translated into concrete offers.
Fu’s idea to drop the question of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from the bilateral agenda, end the EU-China sanctions from 2021 and dust off the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment are neither surprising nor particularly new. And Beijing’s position on the conflict in Ukraine has amounted to a rhetorical repackaging of past statements in an attempt to — among other things — leverage the hopes of those in Europe who still wishfully want to see China as a potential mediator.
And beyond such offers, Beijing simply has no tangible vision for its relationship with the EU. When tensions peaked after Russia’s invasion and China’s economic coercion of Lithuania, President Xi Jinping used the EU-China summit in April 2022 to state that “China’s vision [of the relationship] remains unchanged.” And Beijing has consistently used its relationship with the EU to prevent action, rather than make things happen.
Currently, there are three goals guiding Beijing’s policy toward the EU — none of them constructive. these are: limiting its buy-in into U.S.-led containment initiatives, limiting restrictions on China’s access to EU technology, and limiting restrictions on access to the EU market while Beijing develops domestic consumption and expands exports to growing markets in the Global South.
Crucially, none of these goals require China to convince the EU about deeper engagement or the upsides of its policies. Instead, all it has to do is stall the development of a more assertive policy on the part of the EU — and rhetoric is the easiest way to go about this.
In truth, Beijing shows no particular interest in developing a constructive agenda it could pursue with the bloc. Beyond being shy about bilateral initiatives, it continues to refrain from coordinating with the EU to make positive contributions to multilateral goals — like restructuring developing countries’ sovereign debt, improving international food security, slowing climate change or reforming the World Trade Organization.
And Beijing’s failure to come up with proposals or seek compromise on these issues says more about its stance toward the EU than any of its recent shifts in diplomatic messaging.
The EU does have some incentive to play along with this game of tactical stabilization though. Much like China after it ended its economically and socially costly zero-COVID policy, the bloc needs economic stability. It has to master a post-COVID-19 recovery, an energy crisis caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine, as well as new challenges to its economic competitiveness due to the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act and other industrial-policy measures.
Thus, keeping relations with China stable is, in many ways, appealing right now.
What Brussels and member countries shouldn’t do, however, is treat China’s shift in tone as a positive change in its strategic objectives and trajectory. As both the spy balloon debacle and Xi’s widely expected visit to Moscow illustrate, Beijing’s plans and calculations remain fundamentally unchanged — which means the divergence that characterized EU-China relations over the past years set the rule, not the exception.
Beijing may say it’s against a “Cold-War mentality” gripping the globe, but its world view seems characterized by exactly that. And it ultimately views the EU as part of the “West” — a U.S.-dominated bloc with which it’s bound to engage in systemic rivalry and geopolitical struggle.
At a collective study session organized by the Chinese Communist Party, Xi recently praised the country’s development model as a blueprint for developing countries. To him, it disproved “the myth that modernization means Westernization,” and laid the groundwork for a “brand new form of human civilization.” And such an approach to the international system makes any constructive long-term agenda impossible for the EU.
The bloc may not want to endanger the current period of tactical stabilization in EU-China relations, but it should still use this time to clarify the relationship’s likely trajectory — and it certainly shouldn’t allow Beijing to stall its process of defining and implementing a clear-eyed agenda.
The EU needs to develop a concrete and realistic vision of its future with China. It needs to embrace more proactive goals beyond risk mitigation, and it needs to set a new agenda with a strategic clarity that at last undercuts Beijing’s stalling.