Pacific Dialogue
Walking a tightrope
By Liang Xiao  ·  2023-12-11  ·   Source: NO.50 DECEMBER 14, 2023

With the leaders of China and the United States having reached a constructive consensus at their November 15 summit in San Francisco, California, the world's attention is turning to Europe: What will the 27-member bloc that is the European Union do next?

It seems President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen may not have a direct answer to this question.

After visiting Beijing in early April to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top officials, she landed in the Chinese capital again in early December, accompanied by European Council President Charles Michel, to attend the 24th China-EU Summit on December 7.

This was the second time since April 2019 that this mechanism of top-level political dialogue and regular meetings between China and the European Union, which began in 1998, was resumed in person.

In June, EU followed the U.S. in adopting a policy of "de-risking" toward China, a softening of its unofficial "decoupling" approach. Their decision reflected concerns about the economic damage of cutting off the world's second largest economy or engaging in trade wars.

Prior to leaving for China, when asked how she would handle China-EU relations, von der Leyen said that the EU does not want to "decouple" from China, but will not stop "de-risking in certain areas."

At the same time, the EU "is willing to resolve differences with China through dialogue, but will not budge on issues that affect its own interests," she added. These diplomatic statements may also reflect Europe's current dilemma: Successfully crossing a tightrope without falling requires keeping the center of gravity directly above the rope. It's all about balance.

And when it comes to foreign policy, the EU seems to be trying to rebalance itself between the U.S. and China. The U.S. undoubtedly remains the EU's most important ally, and their transatlantic partnership will be Europe's strategic focus for a long time to come.

China, on the other hand, is a trading partner that Europe cannot ignore. Last year, despite the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the differences between China and most EU members on how to deal with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the total volume of bilateral trade continued to grow at a rate of 23 percent. According to Eurostat, the EU's statistical agency, China was the EU's third largest trading partner for exports of goods (9 percent) and its largest trading partner for imports of goods (20.8 percent).

The interdependence between the EU and China goes beyond imagination. Only if China's economy continues to develop can it continue to buy German cars, French cosmetics and Italian fashions, and have millions of tourists go on vacation to Greece for sunshine and sailing, to Norway for skiing, and to Spain for soccer matches, maxing out their credit cards in restaurants and shopping malls. For China, in its ideal world structure, the EU has always played an extremely important role.

The U.S., on the other hand, seems to have some reservations about a strong Europe—and a rising China.

Although it has long regarded Europe as an ally sharing common values, Europe's dependence on the U.S. for its security means that the latter has a de facto veto over the direction of European defense.

As for China, the U.S. is worried that China is trying to replace its global hegemony. 

The centerpiece of the current U.S. global strategy is the unification of the EU for the containment of China.

But is this in the interest of all EU members? Worth noting here are the EU's recent policies toward China, such as the anti-subsidy investigation into China's new battery-powered passenger vehicles that are "distorting the European market," on which member states have repeatedly expressed divergent views.

In sum, the EU and China are having more to cooperate than to compete. They share certain common interests in spite of disagreements on some other issues.

"If China and Europe choose dialogue and cooperation, there will be no bloc confrontation; if China and Europe choose peace and stability, there will be no new cold war; if China and Europe choose inclusiveness, there will be hope for global development and prosperity," said Wang Yi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and Minister of Foreign Affairs, at a meeting with EU diplomatic envoys to China in Beijing on December 4, iterating that China's policy toward Europe remains and shall remain stable.  

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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