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China wants to divide, rule, conquer Europe. EU is too confused to stop it

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The 24th EU-China summit, scheduled to be held in Beijing on 7-8 December, comes at a critical juncture. It will determine the trajectory of China’s difficult relationship with the European Union, particularly with the Central and Eastern European countries within the reconfigured 14+1 – formerly 17+1 – format.

There is a significant divide among EU member states vis-à-vis China. For instance, the Czech Republic and Lithuania drifted away from China, while France, Germany, and Hungary are advocating for increased engagement with Beijing. At times, these nations even blur the lines between their individual China policies and the broader EU stance.

After the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a surge in official visits from Europe to China, with French foreign minister Catherine Colonna being the latest to visit on 23-24 November. Earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited China in April, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez Pérez-Castejón in March, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in November 2022.

These developments could be China’s attempt to court its European counterparts. For instance, the country unilaterally announced a 15-day visa-free entry for citizens from France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands. While this move does not indicate a substantial shift, it does offer insights into China’s Europe policy and its attempt to reconcile with those who hold favourable views toward Beijing.

Chinese media highlights Europe’s ‘hypocrisy’

China is evidently striving to stabilise its relations with Europe. The country’s state-run media amplifies the perspectives of European Parliament members (MEPs) with remarkably positive sentiments toward the country. For instance, CGTN recently conducted an exclusive interview with Irish MEP Claire Daly, who remarked on the “historical arrogance” in the EU’s stance toward China and how it stemmed from their “colonial mindsets”.. Global Times used similar language in an editorial, saying,“Many EU politicians maintain their assertive and arrogant stance, however, the foundations supporting their arrogance are gradually weakening.”

Mike Wallace, a pro-China MEP, has frequently appeared in interviews with Chinese media outlets and expressed his views on the microblogging site Weibo. One of his prominent viewpoints — which drew the attention of Chinese social media users — compares EU’s stance on human rights in Xinjiang to its position on the Israel-Hamas conflict. “The EU wants to talk about human rights in Hong Kong. Chinese police did not kill a protester, while the same EU supported the genocide in Gaza. The far-right Israeli regime killed more than 13,000 civilians in 50 days. The EU is always on the evil side now, ”  he said. 

However, in contrast to Daly and Wallace, several MEPs have emphasised the critical nature of the EU’s strategy in handling relations with China. Reinhard Bütikofer, a German MEP, underscored his nation’s China policy in an interview with the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), a China-sanctioned German think tank. “As long as we have to worry that the Chancellery equates German and European interests with those of the overly China-dependent German car industry, European unity vis-à-vis China will always be fragile,” he said.

Interestingly, von der Leyen is not the most liked figure on Weibo, largely due to her tougher stance on China. One user highlighted that, according to the EU constitution, von der Leyen does not have the authority to engage in foreign policy, yet she is attributing the escalation in Gaza to China”. The already unfavourable views on the European Commission president were intensified when, in October, the EU initiated anti-subsidy investigations into its imports of battery electric vehicles from China. However, comments made by Macron after his April visit to China, which emphasised that Europe should resist pressure to become “America’s follower” on the Taiwan issue, were applauded by Chinese news outlets and social media.


Also read: Beijing is neutral on Israel-Palestine conflict. But Chinese people are saying something else


Where is EU headed with China?

The EU has highlighted numerous critical issuesin its engagements with China, notably focusing on substantial trade imbalance. In 2022-23, China’s trade surplus with the EU soared to a historic high, amounting to $434.96 billion, showcasing the magnitude of this economic disparity. Despite this, several European countries perceive engagement with China as vital for their economic interests, even viewing it as potentially beneficial in addressing the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

However, there are voices cautioning against a soft approach towards China and rushing into dealings with it. A prevailing viewpoint among European scholars is that “European leaders’ visits to China this year have yielded little in terms of concessions that align with European interests—whether concerning Russia’s aggression or economic ties. Instead, these visits were perceived as a showcase of European disunity, ultimately leaving Europe’s China policy in a state of disarray.”

However, the EU maintains a consistent and firm stance toward China. Von der Leyen’s statements have remained unwavering despite some individual nations expressing a desire for increased engagement with China. In 2019, the European Commission labelled the country as a systematic rival, a position consistently echoed in von der Leyen’s statements throughout the year. “We must recognise that there is an explicit element of rivalry in our relationship. We must also recognise that China’s views on the global security architecture are not by default aligned with ours,” she reiterated at a MERICS event on 16 November.

However, member states like France and Germany continue to shape their own China policies, creating complexities in the path of a unified EU strategy. China’s strategy for EU, on the other hand hand, is similar to its approach towards ASEAN – divide, rule, and conquer.

There is consensus that the EU lacks a cohesive and nuanced China policy. It is crucial for both the EU and its member states to recognise that a fragmented Europe serves China’s interests while undermining their own. Addressing issues with China requires sincere alignment among EU countries. The upcoming EU-China summit could serve as a platform for the EU to show a united front and secure its long-term interests. However, such cohesion seems unlikely at present.

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