The visit by French President Macron and European Commission President Von der Leyen to China shows that a fragmented European approach can easily be taken advantage of by Beijing.
How China interacts with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine would “be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a speech on the state of EU-China relations on March 30 in Brussels. Days later, she asserted the same message in Beijing, on a visit she chose to undertake with French President Emmanuel Macron.
The joint visit was meant to project European unity in Beijing, demonstrate that EU member states are converging toward a common position and signal that trying to exploit internal divisions might no longer pay off.
Instead, the visit projected a more assertive EU (as displayed by Von der Leyen), but definitely not a more united EU. It also failed to persuade Beijing to adopt a more constructive role in relation to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.
However, while it did not deliver Europe the perfect outcome, it was not a failure.
As always, Chinese President Xi Jinping prefers to compartmentalize issues in his relations with partners, but also likes to compartmentalize partnerships and play them off against each other. The same mindset guides his approach to the EU.
This time, he prioritized Macron, perhaps his most suitable partner in the EU, over Von der Leyen. Xi exploited Macron’s eagerness to engage and welcomed his more accommodating, less confrontational stance than that of Washington, showing that Macron’s moderate voice among the 27 member states is of strategic importance to his agenda. Xi also did not conceal his disapproval of Von der Leyen who, in contrast with Macron, criticized China and said the EU needs to “derisk” from it.
Xi’s methods confirmed that, despite claims that it wants to restore ties with the bloc, Beijing wants the future of EU-China relations to be shaped not by its ties with Brussels, but by its most important bilateral relations in the EU. As Xi has demonstrated to Berlin and Paris, this comes with privileged access to China’s market. This treatment, on full display with Macron and Von der Leyen, is nothing new.
At the same time, one should place significant value on the unambiguous stance the commission president conveyed to Beijing on the war in Ukraine, because the stance is truly European. EU member states stand together against Russia’s illegal, unprovoked and unjustified war of aggression.
Xi’s pro-Russia neutrality, his rhetorical support of Putin and refusal to condemn the war has amplified the unprecedented level of European unity. The problem is that no such European unity exists regarding China.
As a result, what is missing in the EU’s narrative – and messaging – is an outline, in explicit terms, of its red lines when it comes to China’s role in the war against Ukraine, and how it would act to defend them.
While Von der Leyen’s tone has been consistently strong, the content of her message has not; what the EU would do in practical terms should Beijing decide to arm Moscow remains vague and therefore is of little deterrence to Beijing. Given the record of the EU’s half-hearted approach to China – and Russia – over the years, it also has a credibility problem, which weakens its warnings to Beijing even further.
It should not come as a surprise that warning Beijing of consequences, without saying what might happen if Xi increases support for Putin, will not work. Such warnings are also not going to incentivize Beijing to adjust its posture and start acting like a responsible member of the UN Security Council.
The more Beijing can undermine the EU, the less incentive it will have to shift its approach.
Even after a year of destruction in Ukraine, the EU’s fragmented approach to China has given Beijing ample room to continue to maneuver, making the EU look powerless in terms of leverage. With the EU unable to use its collective economic weight as influence, there is not much hope that China will act responsibly to protect the rules-based order, which is rather ironic.
While the past decade has seen Beijing working on imposing its own alternative – authoritarian –governance model, China’s continuous rise was only made possible thanks to its embrace – albeit a selective one – of the rules-based order. Russia’s war, which Xi still has not condemned, risks upending that order and bringing further disruption, which could curtail and delay China’s development. Being associated with a war criminal is not helping Beijing’s global image.
In the words of Von der Leyen: “It is vitally important that we ensure diplomatic stability and open communication with China.”
In this sense, the visit was significant in ensuring that the two sides talk. With her assertive and consistent tone, the commission president is better positioned to shape a European discussion on the EU’s red lines, but whether she succeeds will depend on member states and their political will.
She must ensure an inclusive approach inside the bloc beyond Paris and Berlin, and reflect on a coordinated response to China’s interaction with the war. After all, several countries in Central and Eastern Europe have already shown more political will to act to protect European interests from authoritarian aggression than their neighbors to the West. The stance of countries such as Poland, who were right on Russia and on energy security, but were ignored, must be taken more seriously by the EU for it to be right on China.
Whether Brussels can carve out an inclusive approach on China will shape its credibility, strength and leverage, and enable a truly European way forward.