Ideas on Europe

Why the EU needs China “mainstreaming” in all policy areas - Gesine Weber

©European Union Why the EU needs China “mainstreaming” in all policy areas - Gesine Weber
©European Union

Every Monday, a member of the international academic association ‘UACES’ will address a current topic linked to their research.

Gesine Weber, you are PhD candidate at King's Collège in London, and researcher for the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund. And you have followed closely the recent EU-China summit in Beijing.

Yes, the first in-person summit since 2019, which took place on December 7 and 8.

From the beginning, expectations were low: the relations between the EU and China are subject to increasing tensions. Everybody is nervous!

European policy-makers are concerned about the ties between China and Russia ties and the structural trade imbalances between China and Europe, while Beijing is worried about the EU’s agenda of “de-risking” and the potential challenges for China’s economic interests, such as access to the EU market.

At the same time, there is no common position of the EU and China on major conflicts like Ukraine and Gaza, besides the fact that both regularly recall the importance to act as responsible global players.

In this context, what's the point of having a summit?

It's about keeping the conversation going and showing that the EU and China can at least agree to disagree. Given that the summit was preceded by a high level of bilateral in-person engagement all over the year, it was also a good tool for the EU to prioritise China policy in a more systematic manner than before – and that is an approach that is overdue.

Why do you think it’s necessary?

The headache for the European Union is that its relationship with China is incredibly complex: the famous classification in 2019 of China as a systemic rival, an economic competitor, and a partner for cooperation mirrors that Brussels cannot adopt a “one-size-fits-all” approach towards Beijing.

At the same time, simply avoiding dealing with China is not an option either. China policy is not just an aspect of trade or political relations with Beijing. It infuses all aspects of the EU’s external policies, ranging from responding to conflicts, addressing global challenges like climate change, securing supply chains, or shaping the international order.

And China policy is also an aspect of internal policies inside the EU: it has to be systematically included when it comes to decision-making on industrial policies, foreign direct investment, or digital policy. In other words: Brussels needs consequent “China mainstreaming” in all policy areas, which means developing a comprehensive China strategy and linking already existing means to ends – namely European interests and foreign policy goals.

We seem to be quite far from reaching this objective.

You are right. But the EU’s “de-risking” agenda is a first step to reduce one-sided economic dependencies on China, and the upcoming economic security package, which is expected to be published in late January, is supposed to provide details on the instruments that might be used to achieve this objective.

However, the EU is still failing to define its position in US-China competition – and this will be increasingly important. Not only because this competition intensifies, increasing the risk for other actors to suffer from the consequences, but also because the US elections in the next year carry an additional risk for instability.

How does China look at the EU today?

For China, the EU remains a variable in US-China competition. European strategic autonomy is understood in Beijing as a dissolution of the transatlantic bond and therefore strongly welcomed.

At the same time, the US pressure Europeans to choose sides, putting the EU face to face with its own limited military capabilities.

Nevertheless, neither of these two perspectives – full alignment with the US versus abandoning the transatlantic bond and instead unconditionally deepen the partnership with China – does actually take into consideration that the EU itself has interests.

Over the last years, Brussels has been slowly learning to speak the language of power and geopolitics, but it stays mute on its position in US-China competition. The EU needs to make clear that its central interest lies in preserving a multilateral and rules-based international order, which forms the basis of the European economic model and prosperity, and for Europe’s engagement with the world. Beyond affirming these interests, it also needs to pave the way on implementing them through existing and new instruments, both domestically and internationally. Nothing else, really, than European strategic autonomy in practice.

Many thanks, Gesine Weber, for sharing your insight on the recent EU-China summit. I recall you are a PhD candidate at King’s College London, and if understand correctly, you are just about to start a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Columbia. Congratulations, and good luck!