Study: EU-China relations: De-risking or de-coupling − the future of the EU strategy towards China

Andreea Brinza | 26 March 2024

The European Parliament published a Study requested by the AFET committee about EU-China relations, entitled: EU-China relations: De-risking or de-coupling − the future of the EU strategy towards China.

The team of six European experts on China which authored the Study was coordinated by RISAP’s Vice President Andreea BRINZA. The Study addressed the most important issues related to EU-China relations and China’s foreign policy. The other five authors are: Una Aleksandra BĒRZIŅA-ČERENKOVA, Philippe LE CORRE, John SEAMAN, Richard TURCSÁNYI, Stefan VLADISAVLJEV. The Study was funded by the EP and was implemented under the coordination of Trans European Policy Studies Association (TEPSA).

Executive summary

  • Over the past decade, the political environment in the People’s Republic of China (hereinafter referred to as China) has become more closed and authoritarian. The influence of ideology and nationalism has grown, coupled with wider and more serious human rights violations. It is possible that this trend could continue. Moreover, the Chinese government’s external behaviour has become more assertive and on occasion confrontational. At the same time, China’s relations with the United States of America (USA), the European Union (EU), and many of its neighbours have deteriorated, being characterised by nu- merous points of tension. If China’s diverse domestic challenges continue to mount, its government may resort to even more aggressive foreign policy in the future.

  • Since 2017, EU-China relations have been on a downward spiral. In 2019, the EU described China as ‘a cooperation partner’ and ‘negotiating partner’, as well as ‘an economic competitor’ and ‘a systemic rival’. Since then, the economic competition and systemic rivalry have intensified, while the EU and China have failed to achieve notable negotiating successes.

  • EU-China relations are in a state of flux, being affected by numerous issues, tensions, concerns and worries. These include: economic problems, such as unfair practices and the lack of a level playing field for European companies in China; human rights abuses, such as those witnessed in Xinjiang and Hong Kong; the general state of human rights in China; global events, such as China’s actions on the interna- tional stage which are perceived as aiming to undermine the liberal world order; geopolitical threats, such as current tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, or worries about a possible future invasion of Taiwan.

  • In this context, the EU has proposed a policy of ‘de-risking’, meant to manage risks coming from eco- nomic and technological engagement with China. This new approach is in its early stages, hence char- acterised by official assessments of existing dependencies and potential risks. How exactly to imple- ment de-risking will be decided in the next few years, once all the different views of European stake- holders, such as EU institutions, national governments and European companies, have been distilled. For the moment, there is a general consensus that the EU should avoid a broad de-coupling from China and should instead focus on targeted measures where dependencies or risks are deemed to exist.

  • De-risking and the economic security strategy build upon policies and measures already taken by the EU over the past five years, such as: the Foreign Direct Investment screening mechanism; the Anti- Coercion Instrument; the EU Chips Act; and the Critical Raw Materials Act. The three-pronged approach of ‘Promote, Protect and Partner’ creates a framework for future steps.

  • Addressing dependencies, risks and supply chain vulnerabilities will require careful consideration, as the EU should avoid both the risk of not doing enough and the threat of doing too much, thereby veering towards protectionism. De-risking has been specifically proposed as an alternative to calls for de-coupling and should be seen as an exercise in risk mitigation or risk management, instead of com- pletely remaking economic relations to eliminate all risks. The policy of de-risking is therefore con- nected with a diversification of the EU’s economic ties and the quest for strategic autonomy, by build- ing Europe’s capacities and ability to act as a geopolitical actor.

  • One important issue that the EU will have to grapple with is the lack of unity among all Member States, as national governments and leaders have different perspectives on a host of issues, including how to deal with China. While most Member States share a similar outlook, there are some which adopt differ- ent positions, making it difficult for the EU to agree in which direction to move, let alone at speed.

  • The EU has adopted a way of describing its relations with China – the triptych – and a slew of policies directly or indirectly dealing with China as well as issues that stem from bilateral relations, such as de- risking. However, it lacks a comprehensive and consistent long-term strategy or a clear vision of its goals regarding China, and of where it wants bilateral relations to go. Except for its formulation of the triptych, the 2019 Joint Communication is no longer relevant as most actions therein have either been implemented or abandoned. While de-risking is in the process of being shaped and could determine a road map for future actions, it is country-agnostic and hence does not directly deal with the variety of issues and goals that specifically define or should define Europe’s relations with China for the future.

  • In the context of developments happening in China specifically and on the global stage generally (which include growing nationalism and centralisation of power in China; an intensifying US-China rivalry; an expanding and improving Chinese military power; and the increasing risk of a military conflict, especially in the Taiwan Strait), the EU needs to develop a more precise vision of its future relationship and goals regarding China, upon which it can then design a comprehensive and consistent long-term strategy. Such a strategy should address the gamut of issues connected, directly or indirectly, with China, such as: preserving the liberal world order; promoting sustainable global development; dealing with global issues or threats; promoting and defending human rights as well as democratic values; expanding partnerships and improving cooperation with allies; preserving peace; and preventing military conflicts.

  • Regarding Taiwan, there is a considerable risk of military conflict over the next 2-3 decades. This would pose grave threats to the EU, which must therefore prepare response options, take actions aimed at lessening the negative consequences and impact from such a military conflict, and actively work to reduce the risk of war, including through direct engagement with China on this subject.

  • The EU and its Member States have improved cooperation and coordination with like-minded partners, such as the USA, Japan, South Korea and Australia, on China and other related issues. This cooperation should intensify over the coming years and should focus especially on tangible achievements that can help improve prosperity, economic resilience and global development.

  • Countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations generally have strong Chinese business links, even though some are also engaged in territorial or maritime disputes with China. Beijing’s increased assertiveness is also heightening worries in the region, which could create the context for more active EU engagement. Indeed, although the EU is and will remain much weaker than China in the region, it is nevertheless seen as a preferred third party to help the region escape from the undesirable US-China bipolar contest.

  • The Global Gateway is a good platform and presents an opportunity for engagement with the Global South. However, the EU should focus first on implementing and delivering concrete results efficiently, to prevent the initiative being perceived as stemming from competition with China. The EU also needs an improved engagement and communication strategy in the Global South, where for some time China has been improving its relations and growing its presence.

  • Within Europe’s Eastern neighbourhood, in Ukraine, Moldova and the Western Balkans, China’s economic presence and political engagement have grown over the past decade, but at different speeds in different countries. Some, such as Moldova and Ukraine, have distanced themselves from China over the past few years, choosing to focus on strengthening relations with the West and pursuing EU membership. The same trend can be seen in Western Balkans countries, though in the cases of Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, cooperation with China continues to expand and intensify.

  • When it comes to China’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe has found little openness for cooperation and should remain wary of Beijing’s pronouncements. The Chinese government is aiming to maintain or strengthen relations with Russia, while trying to limit the negative impact on its relation with Europe by tailoring its messaging to different audiences.

  • The issue of human rights remains salient in EU-China relations as violations by the Chinese govern- ment have not only continued, but Beijing has also become more assertive in pushing back against criticism and promoting its own perspectives regarding values on the global stage. These trends are likely to continue, generating new tensions or issues in EU-China relations, while the EU will need to search for better ways of conducting strategic communication on the subjects of values, human rights and the global order, so as to promote democracy and democratic principles successfully.

  • People-to-people relations between the EU and China have been affected not only by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also by EU-China tensions and the political changes taking place in China. While China’s image in European countries has suffered a considerable decline in recent years, the EU still has a relatively good image among the Chinese people, which it should strive to preserve or improve.

  • When it comes to academic and research exchanges and cooperation, as part of its de-risking policy the EU should be careful to target precisely those forms of cooperation that pose risks, while not plac- ing any restrictions or undue burden on most forms of engagement and cooperation, which pose no threat and remain important for sustaining bilateral relations as well as improving European competi- tiveness.

EU-China relations: De-risking or de-coupling − the future of the EU strategy towards China

Photo Credits: Flickr/; Flickr/ (cropped).


Andreea Brinza

Andreea Brinza is a researcher and the Vice President of RISAP. Her interests are related to the geopolitics, geostrategy and geoeconomics of the Asia-Pacific region and especially China. Her research focuses on the Belt and Road Initiative.

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