For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome John Seaman from the French Institute of International Relations (or IFRI) in Paris. Bonjour, John !
John, together with your colleagues in the European Think-tank Network on China (ETNC), you have written a report on the question of dependence in Europe’s relations with China. Why did you focus on “dependence” ?
In our different think tanks, we’ve noticed increasingly over the years that when we debate about our relations with China, there is often this notion that we’ve become “dependent on China”, meaning that Beijing holds a significant amount of leverage over Europe because we rely heavily on China for things like medical supplies, which became evident in the early days of the pandemic, and the supply of manufactured goods or critical raw materials, not only in low value-added fields like toys or textiles, but increasingly in high-tech industries of the future, like hardware for 5G.
This idea alone constrains our choices and influences how we approach China today, but also amplifies our fears. While there is certainly some truth in all of this, we thought this notion of “dependence” seemed greatly over-simplified in the public discussion, so we decided to try to unpack it by looking at how 18 European countries understand it and see what it was all about.
So where does this sense of being “dependent on China” come from ?
It comes from a lot of different sources. First of all, China is an unavoidable economic partner. But more than the economics, it’s the politics that has prompted Europeans to think more about this question of dependence.
China is an increasingly major player on the international scene with ambitions for its future that don’t always mesh with our own, particularly when it comes to things like political values. In a structural sense, China is no longer the complementary economic partner it once was. Rather, it is increasingly a major competitor in high-value industries, and a systemic rival with regard to many of the core tenants of what we think of as a rules-based international system. We’ve also seen how China is willing to use economic coercion to pursue political goals. Relations between Lithuania and China are the most recent illustration of this.
Is this only a question about China, or is it also about the changing global order and how Europe sees itself ?
Good question, your intuition is right. This shift in the way that we see China, which is in part due to China’s own behaviour, has prompted us to be concerned about dependencies and our critical vulnerabilities relative to Beijing. But in many ways, that we are concerned about this question of dependence at all shows the degree to which Europe has come to reflect on itself in much more geopolitical terms. We used to think about interdependence as a source of stability, but now we increasingly think about dependence as a source of vulnerability. It’s really part of a broader debate in Europe about the balance between openness and security, and indeed, it’s a debate that goes well beyond China.
So what did you find ? Do we have a real sense for if and how Europeans are dependent on China ?
Yes and no. What we found is that we’re still very much in the exploratory phase of understanding our own dependencies and vulnerabilities. It’s really the European Union that is leading the assessment process, exploring where Europe’s dependencies lie, which is part of a broader development of an industrial strategy. But this effort is very recent, starting really in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. In a review of 5000 product categories, for instance, the Commission has identified 137 categories in the most sensitive ecosystems – aerospace & defense, digital, electronics, energy-intensive industries, health and renewable energy – where the EU can be regarded as strategically dependent. 52% of the EU’s import value in these categories come from China. This in itself is cause for concern.
But what we found is that, at the member state level, very few countries have actually taken it upon themselves to assess these vulnerabilities in the context of their own domestic economies. In only one quarter of the countries that we studied did we observe that a robust public debate was coupled with a concerted effort on the policy side to reflect on issues of dependence with regard to China. These include France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Lithuania. You can make all sorts of analysis from this, but one concern for me is that a broad lack of local assessment and ownership of the issue in much of Europe will lead to sub-optimal policies – either in the form of unnecessary self-censorship for fear of backlash from China, or in a politically-motivated and dangerous over-inflation of the “China threat” story.
Many thanks, for sharing your network’s insight on this increasingly relevant issue.
“Ideas on Europe” will be back next week, and we will welcome Miriam Mona Mukalazi from the University of Düsseldorf.
John SEAMAN, Francesca GHIRETTI, Lucas ERLBACHER, Xiaoxue MARTIN, Miguel OTERO-IGLESIAS, (eds.), Dependence in Europe’s Relations with China: Weighing Perceptoins and Reality, The European Think-tank Network on China (ETNC), April 2022, https://www.ifri.org/en/publications/publications-ifri/ouvrages-ifri/dependence-europes-relations-china-weighing-perceptions
European Commission, “Strategic Dependencies and Capacities”, Staff Working Document, Accompanying the Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions Updating the 2020 New Industrial Strategy: Building a Stronger Single Market for Europe's Recovery, European Commission, May 21, 2021, available at: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/FR/TXT/?uri=CELEX:52021SC0352.