An ambitious European China strategy needs a vision, new tools and more resources

Andrei Lungu | 14 September 2020

In designing a coherent, goal-driven, long-term China strategy, Europe should be ambitious, even if achieving its goals will be difficult. This will require vision, but also new tools and resources, which Europe now lacks. This need will in itself complicate things for European governments on the short term, but on the long run it will enable Europe not only to get China right, but to transform the European Union into a global geopolitical player.

When it comes to vision, any proper European strategy will need to go beyond China itself. First of all, it’s also about the broader Asia-Pacific region, in which China operates. This doesn’t mean that Europe should strengthen ties with other countries in order to contain China (unless it decides this is its end goal). Nor does it mean diversifying economic ties throughout the region, with the purpose of making it possible to one day decouple from China. Such actions would mean treating the Asia-Pacific, the world’s most populous region, as a simple annex of China and a hedge against its rise. Europe simply needs to be present in the Asia-Pacific and take advantage of the numerous economic opportunities it offers, which go beyond China, from India, to Indonesia, to Japan. Sometimes, one gets the feeling that Europe is simply focusing too much on China for economic opportunities and too little on other rising economies in the Asia-Pacific. This doesn’t mean shifting this focus from China to other countries, but simply offering every country the interest and attention it deserves. The Asia-Pacific is more than China. This will inevitably mean more work and, therefore, the need for more human resources and expertise in both EU institutions and national governments, but it will generate countless opportunities.

The EU should work to build a network of free trade agreements and investment agreements throughout the Asia-Pacific and then actively help European companies take advantage of these agreements, so they can create real value. Increasing people-to-people ties, scholarships and educational opportunities, academic and research exchanges are all important goals. European leaders must also increase political and diplomatic engagement with their Asia-Pacific counterparts, building trust and relations. Military-to-military ties should also receive attention, through both exchanges and joint exercises with regional militaries, whether in bilateral (interested European states together with a single Asia-Pacific country) or multilateral settings. When it comes to China, the EU should use these relations with the Asia-Pacific in order to promote peace, cooperation and the liberal order, focusing on integrating China within this order. On certain issues, the EU and European countries can try to mediate different regional disputes.

The Asia-Pacific is just the start. A coherent China strategy needs to focus on China’s global presence. This means that European governments and the EU need to make sure that there’s at least one European diplomat (from any member state) who is focusing on China in every country around the world in which there is a European diplomatic presence. The purpose of such a China-focused diplomatic presence shouldn’t be to contain China and fight against its growing influence, but simply to allow Europe to monitor, better understand and engage with China’s global footprint. These diplomats would not only send back to Europe information and reports about China’s activities and presence in the countries where they are posted (which would be shared with the EU and all national governments, with the exception of those deemed very sensitive, which should circulate only among the countries that share the same vision on China and implement the same common strategy), but they can engage with local government institutions, officials and stakeholders, Chinese diplomats or Chinese companies on the ground and coordinate Europe’s local engagement and cooperation with China. Such a global diplomatic presence focused on China will allow Europe to have a better understanding of China’s growing interaction and influence throughout the world, which it can try to shape towards productive and cooperative purposes (for example, to make sure Chinese investments aren’t contributing to global warming or generating other ecological problems). China is not just a bilateral subject. It is a global player and any coherent strategy must treat it as such.

Europe and the EU will also need to design new tools and dedicate more resources that can enable and support an ambitions strategy, such as the global network of diplomats focusing on China. Some of the new tools, policies and resources that are necessary for the EU to have a coherent China strategy aren’t really China-focused, but general ones that will allow the EU to become a real geopolitical player. For example, expanding and improving the European External Action Service (EEAS) and its global presence, moving to majority voting on foreign affairs issues within the Council of the EU, expanding and intensifying European defense collaboration and enabling a more prominent role for Brussels in this field. Most of the ideas that focus on strengthening Brussels’ role in foreign policy and enabling the EU to become a global geopolitical player are welcomed developments when it comes to EU-China relations. But because these changes sometimes mean a transfer of power from national governments to the EU, combined with the inevitable differences of opinion on foreign affairs issues among national governments, it will be difficult and time-consuming to achieve such progress. Yet even slow progress is better than stagnation. Nonetheless, the EU should try to focus on real tools, not just rhetorical ones. For example, the European investment screening mechanism is better than nothing, yet in its current consultative form it changes things very little. A government that is bent on approving a foreign investment or acquisition will do so even if Brussels cautions against it (especially if it’s a populist or Eurosceptic government). There’s a risk that once modicum progress has been achieved, instead of striving for further, real progress, European leaders will pat themselves on the back and move on to achieve modicum progress on other issues.

In the meantime, there are also China-specific tools and resources that Europe can design, especially if it accepts that a coherent strategy will not be EU-wide, but will exclude a number of governments that see things differently. Unlike other countries, China is a very controversial subject, with a huge diversity of opinions, ranging from friendly to hostile. One does not usually see such a diversity regarding relations with other countries, like India, Japan or Vietnam. On these subjects, there are normal differences between national governments, each trying to promote their interests for certain products or services in negotiations for free trade agreements, for example. Yet almost everybody agrees that stronger relations with these countries are good. On China, things are different, as some see China as a partner, others as a competitor, some see it as a friend, other as a threat or an enemy. Consensus among these views is impossible, but the reality of such different views must be addressed.

Right now, the EU and European member states consult and engage on the subject of China, from leaders to officials. But these consultations are largely ad-hoc. In many cases, the people involved in these discussions, whether they are politicians, officials, diplomats or even generalist foreign-policy experts, do not focus on China and are not prepared to deal with such a complicated and consequential subject. Sure, they can talk about what are their countries’ interests in negotiating the EU-China investment agreement, but they cannot talk about how to address the broader challenges of China’s rise. As long as European countries will engage on an ad-hoc and temporary basis on China, Europe will only think about China on the short-term and act reflexively, without a broader vision. At the same time, achieving any kind of consensus will be difficult, if not impossible.

The European countries that will share a common coherent, goal-driven, long-term China strategy, together with EU institutions, must create the framework for proper, permanent engagement and consultation on the subject of China between officials who focus specifically on China. Right now, neither European institutions, nor the big European governments aren’t dedicating enough resources to shaping a common strategy and common approach on China. It’s difficult to align national perspectives when there isn’t enough engagement and discussion. Such China-focused officials in Brussels and European capitals can work to shape consensus both between member states and inside these states themselves, where there are also considerable divisions. China-focused officials in national capitals can engage with other officials throughout the institutions of government, ministers, politicians and local officials, holding briefings and trainings; they can engage with other stakeholders regarding China, from experts and activists to European companies present in China or Chinese companies in the respective country; and they can also engage with China-focused diplomats from the local embassies of other European member states, sharing knowledge and building consensus. All these actions and processes will help build consensus within and among European countries. In both cases, the purpose isn’t to achieve full unity, but to bring as many stakeholders as possible into the fold. European governments must have at least one China-focused official in their permanent representations in Brussels, where they can engage with each other and with EU officials. This way, European countries and the EU can create a framework for permanent and structured engagement and consultation on China, making it easier both to design and implement a coherent, goal-driven, long-term China strategy.

This framework will help with another important European problems regarding China, like the fact that many European officials, diplomats or politicians who are now consulting and working to develop a common European approach to China, or officials in national governments that sometimes work on subjects connected to China, even those in China-related positions, simply lack enough knowledge or a real understanding of China, the challenges of China’s rise or the threats posed by some of its internal or external policies and actions. In lucky situations, they are at least briefed by competent, China-knowledgeable people. But in the cases of many European countries, these China-hands simply do not exist. Many European governments, especially those of smaller countries, completely lack the resources and apparatus to monitor or understand China. They have people in official positions related to China and on the ground in China, but they lack real China experts. These governments’ China policies aren’t based on a real understanding and knowledge of China, but on superficial perspectives, flawed information, myths, misunderstandings, naivete or short-term interests. No wonder achieving consensus is difficult.

Even larger governments have a problem when it comes to a common European strategy: they don’t really know much about China’s presence and relations with other EU countries. Over the past years, quite a few European governments have started to do research on China’s presence in other EU member states, in order to get a better picture of China-Europe relations, so they can work towards a common strategy. But you cannot make up for years of neglect in a short amount of time and with temporary interactions led by non-China focused diplomats. The big European governments, the ones that should drive an EU strategy, lack a coherent China-focused presence in other European states, which could not only monitor China’s activities, but also shape a European consensus by engaging local stakeholders. If Europe is to have a common and coherent strategy, this problem needs to be addressed, by dedicating China-resources in all their embassies in other European member states, something the EU itself must replicate in its national representation.

The EU can play an important role in solving these problems. It can expand its China and Asia-Pacific apparatus to include experts who can engage and help national governments develop a better understanding and better policies regarding China. It can also facilitate the flow of information and analysis on China between national governments, which would be extremely helpful for small or medium sized European countries that lack coherent government expertise on China. It can post China-focused officials in every national representation, who can share information and analysis, engage with national stakeholders and try to shape consensus on China throughout Europe.

Europe needs to design an ambitious China strategy, but in order to do this, it needs to create a proper framework on China among national governments and EU institutions. Both European countries and the EU itself need to expand their China-focused resources and increase engagement and consultations among themselves and with countries all over the world. This way, Europe won’t simply design a proper China-strategy, but will contribute to laying the foundations for the European Union’s emergence as a global geopolitical player.

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This is the last article in RISAP’s series It’s time for a coherent, goal-driven, long-term European China strategy. You can read the previous articles of the series:

Photo Credits: The headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels (Flickr/Sébastien Bertrand); The Forbidden City in Beijing (RISAP); An EU flag in Italy (Flickr/Luigi Rosa)

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Andrei Lungu​

Andrei Lungu is president of RISAP. His research interests include China’s foreign policy and its domestic politics, Sino-American relations and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

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