Some years ago, both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang showed a fondness for referencing popular American television shows including “Game of Thrones” and “House of Cards.” While they seen to display a firm grasp on Western pop culture, they seem to lack a thorough understanding of European politics. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent diplomatic tour to Western Europe was a vivid case in point.
While his tour was designed to improve China’s post-pandemic image in Europe, some of Wang’s statements only made things worse for China. In Norway, while answering a question about the Nobel Peace Prize and Hong Kong, Wang said that China won’t allow the politicization of the Nobel Prize by interfering in China’s internal affairs — a response that many in the West read as a Chinese threat against awarding the Nobel Prize to Hong Kong protesters. Later, while in Germany, Wang criticized the Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil’s visit to Taiwan and warned that it would incur a “heavy price” — another threat against a European country for doing something considered normal in a democratic state.
Such incidents aren’t isolated cases, but lately they have become the norm. Simply put, China misunderstands Europe, and that leads to constant China-EU frictions. From Beijing’s mask diplomacy, to Chinese disinformation efforts, to China’s censoring of an article written by all 27+1 EU ambassadors, to its pressuring of Brussels to tone down a report on the aforementioned disinformation efforts, recent developments in China-EU relations reinforce the idea that China does too little to understand the EU, its principles, and its concerns.
China’s run of European mistakes started in 2012, when it decided to set up the 16+1 mechanism with the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, among them both EU members and non-members. Back then, China’s decision was watched with suspicion in Brussels and with every step China has taken in the CEE region the European Union’s fear of division has increased. While the EU seems to have gotten over the 2018 Visegrad (V4) moment, when China inaugurated a V4+China format for meetings with Hungary, Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia, and Wang even praised the V4 as the EU’s “most dynamic force,” things changed a lot in 2019. Two crucial moments were Italy’s decision to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Greece’s addition to the 16+1.
In 2019, China finally succeeded in convincing one big European country to join the BRI, regardless of the criticism it attracted from Brussels, Berlin, or Paris. That country was Italy, one of the founders of the EU. But China’s 2019 goals didn’t stop there; its ambitions went even deeper in Europe, to Greece. During the 16+1 summit, which was held in Croatia, China and the CEE countries welcomed Greece into the grouping, transforming the forum into the 17+1 mechanism. While Greece, led back then by a populist leader, Alexis Tsipras, had nothing to lose, China further fractured its relations with the EU — all just to add a success story, the Greek port of Piraeus, to the rather sparse list of completed projects with the 16+1.
But for the EU, the enlargement of the already-worrisome 16+1 mechanism through the addition of Greece, a country that previously divided the EU to defend China, was a slap in the face. While Greece gave the 17+1 mechanism an endorsement and made it look more successful than it was, this cost China the goodwill of larger European countries, including Germany or France. As Italy and Greece joined the two Chinese initiatives, European governments began to speak of China as a “systemic rival” that “plays on our divisions,” as French President Emmanuel Macron asserted.
This article has been published by Andreea Brînză, Vice President of RISAP, in the The Diplomat. You can read the full article in The Diplomat.