Europe is divided over China – perhaps more than ever. Fears about interference abound. The rising power in the East is increasingly seen as a rival, rather than a potential ally. This is particularly apparent in the wake of April’s second forum of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Beijing, which sought to recast Chinese president Xi Jinping’s signature initiative in order to allay concerns about Chinese influence and lending practices.
China’s economic outlook has focused on Europe for years, but European Union (EU) member states have been struggling to find a common China strategy. The debate is increasingly divisive. Two camps either argue “for Europe” and “against China” or vice versa. There seem to be no policy options in the middle – particularly as the European parliament elections approach.
Confirming that scepticism is growing, the European Commission took the unprecedented step in March of declaring China a “systemic rival” of the EU.
This was surprising, not only because Brussels is generally averse to open confrontation, but because there are clearer “strategic competitors” in the EU’s immediate vicinity. Russia and Turkey are obvious examples, but the rise of populism within the EU is problematic, too.
Some in Europe assert that Beijing’s outreach is undermining core European values such as human rights, democracy and the rule of law. For others, China is dividing the continent by buying its way into Europe through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Much criticism has been aimed at the “16+1” mechanism, which was announced in 2011 and brings together 16 Central and East European (CEE) states and China. Of these, 11 are EU member states (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia), four are EU candidates (Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia), and Bosnia is a potential EU candidate country.
The “16+1” provides a framework for annual meetings by the heads of state and wide-ranging cooperation, including in trade and investments, industrial capacity, science and technology, and environmental protection. Consequently, there is a growing perception in Brussels that, through the “16+1” mechanism, China is seeking to split Europe and undermine the integration process.
Meanwhile, Greece, Italy and even post-Brexit UK are seen as vulnerable to China’s economic largesse. All three have been viewed as the weaklings of the European integration process.
Ever since China’s COSCO company acquired the controlling share of the port of Piraeus in 2009, Greece has been suspected of pandering to Chinese interests. But it is often forgotten that the port was sold mainly due to the EU’s explicit demands for its privatisation – and that it has since become the fastest-growing port facility in the world.
Italy’s populist government is also eurosceptic. So when it signed up to partner with the BRI in March 2019, many in Brussels saw this as a confirmation of their worst fears. In fact, the Italian government was responding to growing domestic criticism for not securing a larger share of Chinese investment.
So should the EU indeed mistrust China?
Authoritarianism hasn’t been an obstacle for the EU in the past. In 2010, the EU struck a deal with the then Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi to stem immigration from Africa. In 2016, the EU made a similar arrangement with Turkey, despite the ongoing crackdown against political dissidents by its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
At the same time, if China had successfully bought the allegiance of European states, you’d expect they’d readily comply with Beijing’s demands. Yet, the political leverage that China allegedly harvests from a massive increase of investment across Europe is at best mixed. For instance, Poland and the Czech Republic – supposedly, two of China’s closest partners in the 16+1 – have announced that they will ban Chinese telecoms firm Huawei from participation in the construction of their 5G networks.
The oversimplified idea that Chinese investment buys allegiance – and sows division between EU member states – clashes with reality for two main reasons. First, it is contradicted by the fact that European countries have multiple entanglements with other major powers – first and foremost the US and Russia. China therefore is not the only actor on the European stage and it cannot dominate the continent.
Second, the main beneficiaries from Chinese direct investment are the EU’s core states – including the UK (23%), Germany (19%), Italy (13%), and France (11%). It is therefore hypocritical for Brussels to criticise the 16+1 countries for their alleged interest in Chinese investments. In fact, during the Second BRI Forum China listed only one investment in the entire 16+1 region – the construction of a plant for high performance radial tyres in Serbia. Thus, most of the countries that Brussels portrays as “Trojan Horses” for Chinese influence are largely left out of the Chinese investment bonanza.
Finally, divisions between EU members predate the arrival of China and its BRI. A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that the western and eastern parts of Europe remain deeply divided in public attitudes towards religion, minorities and social issues (such as same-sex marriage and legal abortion). These European divisions are homemade and can hardly be blamed on China.
A unique opportunity
But China is more than just a source of investment. Ever since the end of the Cold War, the foreign policies of CEE states have been heavily influenced by the US (NATO), the EU and Russia. The 16+1 initiative changes this.
The emergence of China provides the 16 countries with a unique opportunity to look in a different direction. This does not mean that CEE states will replace Brussels with Beijing, merely that China should be taken into account when considering CEE states’ foreign policy objectives.
The most significant shift is that China has become a fully-fledged power in Europe. This new reality requires careful reflection and a strategic response. First and foremost, it does not mean that China acts as a rival that is bent on undermining the stability and security of Europe. If anything, China is a long-term investor that will only benefit from European stability.
There are various issues over which the EU should protect its strategic interests, such as intellectual property rights and reciprocal market access. Just like any other power, the Chinese government uses both overt and covert ways to gain domestic influence in Europe (and not only Europe), such as silencing critical voices and expanding its network of Confucius Institutes. But despite these developments, the EU should not become hostage to partisan conspiracies about China.
Wishing away China is impossible – and ignoring that it is already a stakeholder in the complex European landscape is foolish. In a rapidly changing world, with volatile transatlantic relations, rising populism and a fragile European neighbourhood, a cautious yet pragmatic approach to China is a must.