On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel, on behalf of the German Presidency of the Council of the European Union, together with the Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council, will have a virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Before this videoconference, European officials and leaders engaged and discussed on the topic of China. Yet these discussions have not focused on a European strategy on China, but on different specific issues, mainly the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment which is under negotiation, climate change, or the situation in Hong Kong. While these subjects are important, they haven’t been integrated in a coherent European framework on China and engagement between European countries themselves and between Europe and China on these issues, like many others, remains ad-hoc.
At the same time, there are calls for a new European approach towards China, mostly focusing on a more united, assertive and reciprocal EU stance. The calls for getting tough on China follow both the rising assertiveness and authoritarianism displayed by Beijing over the past few years, but also the growing European disappointment regarding Chinese economic reforms and unfulfilled promises, coupled with China’s emergence as an economic competitor for Europe.
Yet throughout all the talk and debate about a new, robust European strategy on China, there is almost no focus on what should be the most important question when designing a strategy: what is the end goal? A strategy without a goal isn’t really a strategy. You have to first decide what you want before you can think about how to get it. This is why it’s vital that European stakeholders, from experts to politicians, begin to think about what should be Europe’s long-term goal (or goals) regarding China.
Only then can Europe design a coherent, goal-driven, long-term China strategy. But this process will inevitably confront a hard reality that has become a European obsession over the past few years: the impossibility of achieving full consensus on China among all 27 EU member states. But instead of stubbornly striving for unity, Europe would be wise to accept reality as it is and find creative solutions to work around this issue. The obsession with unity ignores all the ways in which the EU and national governments can act towards China. Because the EU lacks many of the powers of a typical national government, while most of the power in Europe resides in just over a dozen capitals, it’s more about designing a common China strategy of most EU member states, than an EU strategy to which all member states subscribe. 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.
In designing such a strategy, Europe will need to be ambitious. Any proper China strategy needs to account for China’s global presence. Within the Asia-Pacific region, Europe will need to deepen and expand its economic, diplomatic, political and military engagement, together with people-to-people ties, in order to strengthen and defend the liberal order and, ultimately, help integrate China in that order. But the Asia-Pacific shouldn’t be treated as an annex of China. Far too often Europe forgets or ignores the countless economic opportunities coming from other regional countries, from India to the Philippines. Europe needs to dedicate far more attention and more resources to this region, going beyond rhetoric or declarations.
Europe will also need new tools, for example developing an internal system of consultation and consensus-building on China among member states, led from Brussels. Unlike many other countries, China is a controversial subject in which there are vast differences of opinion, both within EU member states and at the broader European level. Full unity on an ambitious strategy will be impossible, but once a majority of states manage to get together for such a strategy, they and the EU must work to shape the debates and the positions in other member states, expanding this coalition. At the same time, even if many European countries will agree on a goal and the broader contours of a strategy, there will still be disagreements on certain actions and policies, where further work will be necessary in order to build support. This will be difficult to achieve with the current institutional framework, so national governments and the EU must post China-focused officials throughout European capitals, who can engage local officials or stakeholders and shape a broader consensus. EU member states must also coordinate their external diplomatic presence to ensure that there is a China-focused diplomat in every country in which an EU member state has a diplomatic presence, in order to be able to monitor, better understand and engage with China’s global presence.