Designing an ambitious and coherent European China strategy without full unity

Andrei Lungu | 14 September 2020

The initial plan for the Leipzig Summit between China and the European Union featured all the heads of state or government of the 27 EU member states meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The goal of this 27+1 format was to project an image of unity among all EU member states, speaking to China with one voice and asking it to engage the EU as a whole, instead of taking advantage of certain countries through bilateral dealings. This is because the subject of unity and the fear that China is trying to divide the EU have become a European obsession. Almost every Chinese move is watched warily as a possible attempt to divide the EU, whether it is China’s 17+1 mechanism with Central and Eastern European countries or the Belt and Road Memoranda of Understanding that Beijing signs bilaterally with EU member states, even important ones such as Italy. But this “division by China” bogeyman and the obsession with European unity are just distracting from Europe’s real China problems and how they can be addressed.

The narrative of China trying to divide the Union and the obsession with achieving full unity have taken hold over the past years, especially after China created the then-16+1 mechanism with European countries from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) in 2012, thus creating the perfect context for Western Europe to worry about China buying influence in the less developed Eastern half of the Union. Little did it matter that Chinese trade and investments in Central and Eastern Europe paled in comparison to those in Western Europe, where China’s leverage was far higher. This fear of disunity has only grown over the years, especially after some CEE countries really did divide the EU on certain issues, like the statements criticizing the PRC’s human rights abuses or its illegal island-building activities in the South China Sea. The fear also spread to Western Europe once Italy’s populist government joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative, though, probably because of their size, attention continued to focus on CEE countries.

The lack of unity among European member states thus came to be seen as the primary reason for Europe’s bungled approach towards China. Not the lobbying and influence of big European companies making important profits in China, pushing for a business-oriented foreign policy. Not the lack of unity inside Germany on what kind of approach towards China to adopt. Not the lack of a long-term vision and strategy in Germany and France regarding China. All of these faded into the background. The lack of unity among all 27 member states became the primary concern and those pesky Central and Eastern Europeans the primary culprits for the problems in Europe’s China policy. What a convenient excuse.

Obviously, it would be wonderful if the EU could function as a coherent entity, speaking with one voice. It’s understandable that many people want to see a united European approach towards China and the big players dislike the fact that some small governments (or big ones, in the case of Italy) are taking a different approach. But that is how things are. Sometimes, you simply can’t change reality – you need to adapt to it.

Nobody seems to demand that all political parties in Germany share the exact same vision and approach on China, but if just one out of 27 separate countries dares to take a different approach, it’s the end of the world. This isn’t a China-specific problem. There are many other foreign policy issues in which European divisions are even more intense and generate greater negative consequences for Europe. But it seems unity and division have become a China-trope regarding Europe.

Over the past few years, every article on the subject of disunity or on the now-17+1 mechanism between China and the CEE is reminding readers of Greece’s torpedoing of an EU statement against the PRC’s human rights abuses or how Greece and Hungary opposed stronger criticism of the PRC’s illegal island-building activities in the South China Sea. But why should such things matter? Would Beijing have abandoned its island-building activities in the South China Sea if the entire EU criticized them in stronger terms? Would it show more respect for human rights if the EU as a whole, instead of just 26 separate governments, criticized it? Those statements were never meant to achieve anything tangible, just to create the impression that something is being done and Europe is taking a stand.

It’s not the end of the road if all EU members cannot agree on a common position for a formal document. If one, two or three governments refuse to agree with this common position, the other countries can simply submit or publish the statement as individual governments, instead of the EU as a whole. The general effect of putting some pressure on China will be similar. Another simple solution is for the President of the Commission or the European Council to criticize an action, maybe even during a trip to Beijing or at least in an op-ed or an interview, and the symbolic impact would be similar. High Representative Josep Borrell has become more freewheeling in discussing and criticizing China in non-formal settings, like op-eds or interviews, generating headlines about how the EU wants to get tougher on China every time (regardless of the fact that these were just his personal opinions, instead of a common agreement between all 27 national governments). No national government will ever ask for the removal of an important EU leader simply for comments they made on China, yet they will create the impression that the EU is taking a stand.

The obsession with unity ignores all the ways the EU and national governments can act towards China, without every single member state coming on board. All is needed is some creativity and some courage to take the initiative. If the EU is to adopt a coherent, goal-driven, long-term strategy towards China, it should be clear that some member states will simply have a different perspective than the majority. In this context, there are two options: either dilute the strategy so that every member state agrees, even if this means it’s no longer a coherent strategy, or simply implement the strategy without the dissenting governments. The EU lacks many of the powers that national governments normally have, so the policies of national governments are more important. Yet most power, whether economic, diplomatic or military, is in the hands of just over a dozen governments. If they can coordinate their China strategies, the impact of their actions will be very similar to a unified EU approach.

If Huawei builds the 5G networks of only a few member states, if a few governments continue to fervently court Chinese investments or refuse to criticize human rights abuses in China, if some countries allow Chinese companies to manage ports, build highways or buy local companies, or if China can influence the decisions of a few European governments, that’s largely irrelevant in the grand geopolitical landscape, as long as all the other EU countries are united and act decisively. That is what matters: that most European countries work in concert and implement a coherent strategy towards a certain end goal.

Thus, it’s more about designing a common China strategy of most European governments, than a EU strategy itself. Stubbornly striving for consensus would simply dilute European policy toward China. If Europe lets itself driven by the view that “neither the EU nor any of its member states can effectively achieve their aims with China without full unity”, then any strategy on China is already failed. A coherent, goal-driven, long-term strategy to which only 20 EU members adhere to the letter is better than a hodgepodge supported by all.

Once we accept the reality that not everybody will get on board with a unified China strategy, the EU can act to reduce the negative impact of this division. One example is the problem of Huawei 5G gear. It was clear that there is no European consensus on this issue – some wanted to allow Huawei full access, others to ban it. In this context, the big players and EU officials themselves could have tried to find the best solution possible: EU governments should have discussed among themselves to create a larger group that adheres to a common position, for example rejecting an outright ban on Huawei, but quietly leaving it out of the 5G market in favor of Nokia and Ericsson, or banning it from the core network. If the heads of state or government of these countries announced this policy together, it would have provided cover for smaller EU countries to implement it without the same fear of being singled out and punished by Beijing (or by Washington).

At the same time, the EU and the big players could have planned for the fact that some EU countries will in fact allow Huawei full access. These countries will simply lack the resources to conduct continuous monitoring and assessment of the vulnerabilities of Huawei 5G equipment, as Germany or the UK could, thus increasing the risks of possible espionage. Left to themselves, the risks are higher. But, if EU countries decided to cooperate on this endeavor, by forming a multinational task force to inspect and assess Huawei 5G equipment (as it would be in the interest of countries like Germany or France to inspect such equipment and software, as certain vulnerabilities could be exploited for offensive operations against other countries), the European countries using Huawei equipment would at least have a supplementary layer of protection.

This didn’t happen. What we have are a series of European recommendations reached through a process that included all EU countries and ultimately ended up diluted and open to different interpretations, which did, at least, provide some cover for restricting some of Huawei’s access. But the vast majority of member states still haven’t decided on a policy, almost 8 months after the EU recommendations were published, showing there are still doubts about what to do and fears about taking a final decision. We now have a patchwork of approaches, from outright bans, to MoUs targeting Huawei signed by some Central and Eastern European countries with the United States, not yet backed by any national laws, to countries that approved Huawei’s participation in the national 5G network and have no ability to inspect and assess vulnerabilities. The problem isn’t the lack of consensus, but the lack of a strategy that accounts for the inevitable disunity.

The EU’s motto is “United in diversity”. Sometimes, one cannot avoid the feeling that the obsession for full consensus between all 27 member states and the singling out of those who seem to refuse to adhere to whatever the majority (or, in fact, just a bunch of governments, politicians, officials and foreign policy experts) agrees reminds of the Communist Party of China’s obsession with maintaining unity and full agreement with the leadership and its decisions. Nobody likes to see other people dissent, but democrats are supposed to accept that. Achieving unity between all 27 member states is as impossible as achieving unity among all the voters of a country, which nobody ever pursues. It’s just dictators who aim for such “unity”.

European countries and EU institutions themselves can and should design an ambitious, coherent, goal-driven, long-term China strategy, even if not all national governments will agree with this strategy and follow it. But such a strategy requires vision, political courage and unity among at least a few big European countries, things that are largely lacking. Thus, the bogeyman and the perfect excuse of division by China will continue to haunt Europe for a long time, while the real problems go unnoticed and the real solutions ignored. Convenient, indeed.

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This article is part of RISAP’s series It’s time for a coherent, goal-driven, long-term European China strategy. Go deeper and read the other articles of the series:

Photo Credits: The European Council Summit in July 2020 (European Union); The 2015 China-CEE 16+1 Summit in China (Flickr/Latvian Foreign Ministry); Huawei Logo (Flickr/QSC AG)

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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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