In Other News – A View from Abroad – 5-5-2023

A View from Abroad

Once a month, In Other News features a short op-ed heavily informed by the European perspective. We hope that these special monthly pieces will offer our readers an enriched understanding of global events and allow for a more robust international risk calculus.

If EU member states maintain a more unified stance on China, it will bolster the EU’s standing on other issues. Despite the European Union’s adherence to the One China policy, in the current complex global geopolitical environment, EU member states have been struggling to send a coherent message on China. This makes the EU weaker as a collective body since Beijing can leverage the differences among members to advance its economic and political goals. It also weakens the EU’s relationship with Washington and sends mixed signals on how the allies would respond to any forthcoming Chinese military, economic, or political actions.

EU policy differences on China are especially pronounced regarding Taiwan. The EU and its member-states officially follow the One China policy, which means that they exclusively maintain diplomatic relations with Beijing and support China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. The states have also cultivated non-diplomatic relations with Taiwan, especially in trade. But they have to tread carefully. When China tried to punish Lithuania last year because of the country’s strong economic relations with Taiwan, the bloc did not uniformly act against the Chinese sanctions imposed against Lithuania.

European leaders who recently visited China also exemplified this divergence. After Macron visited Beijing, he stated that Europe should avoid getting dragged into a confrontation between China and the United States over Taiwan and should more generally reduce its dependency on Washington. However, fellow EU leaders were quick to criticize Macron’s irresponsible comments, which some attributed to the large Chinese commercial orders for French companies that Macron secured during his visit.

Indeed, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock took a different line when she traveled to China. Baerbock asked Beijing to de-escalate tensions over Taiwan and stated that a military escalation in the Taiwan Strait, where 50% of daily world trade flows, would be a global disaster. The EU’s high representative for foreign Affairs Josep Borrell has reiterated this position as well, while diplomatically stressing the One China policy. The United Kingdom also stated it would support the United States if China were to attack Taiwan.

The disconnected EU member state policies on China allows Beijing to leverage its economic power to pressure certain leaders to toe the line on Taiwan. But these policy differences also have wider policy implications. Washington and EU alignment against Russia has been essential to supporting Ukraine’s valiant defensive efforts, and China has no doubt been keeping close watch. But as the EU member states diverge on China, it’s uncertain if the United States can depend on the EU for political support and economic sanctions should a military conflict between Taiwan and China ever arise.

When the United States and EU member states are aligned, it sends a clear message to China who responds accordingly. For example, Washington and the EU were unified in their outrage after the Chinese Ambassador to France questioned the sovereignty of former Soviet Republics “as having no effective status under international law.” The collective outrage led to so much diplomatic pressure that Beijing had to restate its position as: “China respects the status of the republics born after the dissolution of the Soviet Union as sovereign countries.”

More generally, Western countries are refining and updating their approach to China given the current geopolitical context. Initially, some political leaders and analysts suggested an economic decoupling from China. But EU Commission President Von der Leyen was the first to reframe that concept to ‘de-risking’- suggesting that instead of severing all trade ties, a focused and selective approach would ensure that no vulnerable dependencies exist in strategically important sectors. Washington has also espoused the de-risking idea and isn’t aiming for autarky but for resilience and security in supply chains- in close cooperation with its allies and partners such as the EU.

The EU has labelled China as its partner, its competitor and as its systemic rival. That general approach gives enough flexibility in daily political and economic life and comes close to the US policy of competing with China on multiple dimensions but not looking for confrontation or conflict. Washington and the EU recognize that to address global problems like climate, macroeconomic stability, health security and food security, China is one of the crucial players. Their position will only be strengthened by unity across and among their allies.