As Macron Arrives in Beijing, What’s Next for Europe and China?

A ChinaFile Conversation

One year after the EU-China Summit of April 2022—famously described as a “dialogue of the deaf” by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell—relations between Europe and China remain tense and further complicated by China’s ongoing stance towards Russia and the war in Ukraine. At the same time, Chinese diplomats continue to float new proposals designed to improve ties with the EU, and European leaders continue to explore opportunities for engagement. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November right after the 20th Party Congress, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez visited last week, and French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Beijing today, and will be accompanied by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Meanwhile, as U.S.-China relations approach new lows, American diplomats continue to lobby their European counterparts to adopt similar perspectives and policies with respect to China’s actions on the global stage. Against this backdrop, heightened by Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow, and as European public opinion towards China turns ever more sour, what is the path forward for European-Chinese relations? Are there likely to be any meaningful differences between European and U.S. approaches to China? And might efforts like those of Scholz and Macron yield any adjustments in China’s own behavior, including but not just limited to its approach to the war in Ukraine? —The Editors


“China is not perfect, but we might need it one day,” an unnamed EU official recently told Politico. “Several member states share this assessment,” they added. And there is certainly truth to this—there are signals that Europe is a bigger believer in scoring China’s support than the United States is, and that this sentiment is shared among some nations and in the European Commission.

Perhaps it is a European strength and mission to keep the lines of communication with China open on behalf of the West. Still, several points are worth bearing in mind.

First, European bilateral visits to Beijing, regardless of whether their point of origin is Madrid, Paris, or Berlin, need to speak in one voice and repeat a joint position, or else end up damaging the image of a unified Europe. Case in point, the initially controversial visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz to Beijing in November 2022 actually demonstrated that Germany actively shares the wider Western position on the war in Ukraine and on Taiwan.

China is hoping for a European security decoupling from the U.S. “No matter how the situation may evolve, China all along sees the European Union as a comprehensive strategic partner and supports European integration. We hope that Europe, with the painful Ukraine crisis in mind, will truly realize strategic autonomy and long-term peace and stability,” said China’s newly appointed Foreign Minister Qin Gang in March. It is a good time for European leaders to continue to signal to Beijing that China’s hopes are unfounded.

Second, even though non-confrontational agenda points between Europe and China are scarce these days, and the outrage over the war in Ukraine at first glance seems like a shared emotion, getting China to disown Russia should not be set as a realistic goal. From this point of view, the reported effort by French President Emmanuel Macron to prevent China from increasing its support of Russia’s invasion is a better way of wording it. Instead of calling for China to mediate, thus unwillingly endorsing China’s anti-American global security outlook, European communication should be about deterring China from supporting Russia via signaling resolve—and, going back to the first point, it needs to be a joint resolve for it to work.

“How China continues to interact with Putin’s war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward.” This statement by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her March 30 speech shows that, for the European Commission and presumably for the EU in general, dealing with Russia and the war in Ukraine is a bigger priority than managing the relationship with China. The EU seems to have made the future of its relationship with China dependent to a significance degree on how that country positions itself regarding the war in Ukraine. If that is the case, then it is important that the European Union is clear about what it wants China to do, and that this is viable.

According to von der Leyen, China should play a constructive role in bringing about peace on terms defined by Ukraine. Moreover, a peace settlement should include the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, and the restoration of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, rather than provide Russia with any kind of support, China should use its influence to pressure Russia into ending the war on Ukraine’s and the EU’s terms. The problem is that this is not a viable target so long as China regards Russia as a vital strategic partner because of its geopolitical rivalry with the United States. For China to exert strong pressure on Moscow would seriously damage its relationship with Russia.

The Chinese government has not condemned or openly criticized the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it did indicate in its recent position paper that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of any country (which includes Ukraine) needs to be upheld. This is the paper’s first point, and suggests that China disapproves of and is unlikely to formally recognize the occupation or annexation of any part of Ukrainian territory by Russia. However, the Chinese position paper includes no concrete steps to bring about a restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and has therefore been rejected by the EU as irrelevant at best. China has abstained several times in votes on United Nations Security Council resolutions that demand Russia withdraw its troops. Although the fact that China did not veto these resolutions seems to signal that it does not approve of the invasion, it also did not contribute to isolating Russia diplomatically. The Chinese government so far has not provided Russia with significant military aid, but it has strengthened economic relations, thereby undermining the effectiveness of Western sanctions.

China obviously has not played the role that the EU wants it to. And yet it has kept its support for Russia within certain limits. The ability of the EU to influence China’s position on the war is highly restrained. The Chinese government seems eager to preserve as much as possible China’s economic and diplomatic relations with the EU, but not at the cost of losing its ability to cooperate with Russia on geopolitical issues related to the U.S. When attempting to influence China on how it deals with Russia and the war in Ukraine, the EU should take into account that the Chinese government’s main foreign policy focus is on the U.S., not on Russia or the EU. The European Union should therefore choose its aims carefully. Otherwise, European-Chinese relations may soon reach a dead end, while the EU will not have come closer to achieving its targets regarding the Ukraine war. Moreover, in order to enlarge its ability to influence China-Russia relations, the EU should actively contribute to a tempering of the tensions between China and the U.S.

With the escalation of the war in Ukraine, EU member states and institutions have realized the urgency of a unified EU’s China policy.

It is no coincidence that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron, leaders of two of the countries often considered to be the “beating heart of the EU,” scheduled meetings with Xi Jinping within a few weeks one of another. Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen took stock of where the EU is headed in its relations with China, making a 40-minute-long speech hosted by the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) which China sanctioned in 2021. Von der Leyen’s speech stands as a remarkable evaluation of EU-China contemporary relations, one that articulates a new level of precision on the EU’s position, even arguing for a reassessment of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI).

To be sure, in 2019 the Commission provided important guidelines for how the EU would approach China in the years ahead, describing it, for example, as an economic partner, a technological competitor, and a systemic rival. Yet von der Leyen’s speech went far beyond the bilateral dimension of EU-China relations, questioning how China and the EU (as a global, unitary actor) should manage their relations amidst growing global challenges.

Indeed, it is China’s return to the global stage which stands as a major concern for Europeans—in particular, as von der Leyen referenced, Xi’s no-limits friendship with Putin. However, the special relationship that a number of EU member states have developed with China won’t disappear overnight. The case of Spain is highly representative of the still fragmented foreign policy approach towards China pursued by the EU member states. While Spain never joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is now the largest source of Spain’s imports, and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s visit to Beijing on March 30 and 31 felt more like a business trip, resulting in the signing of important agreements regarding education, phytosanitary protocols for agricultural exports, and sports. In Italy, too, politicians are debating what the official position of the Meloni government should be towards China, particularly regarding the decision about whether in 2024 to renew the BRI memorandum of understanding signed by the Conte government in 2019. Back then, the lack of a clear-cut European policy towards China underlined, once again, the widespread disagreement among member countries shaping their outlook on China. The lack of a unified European strategy towards China isn’t the only policy area paralyzing EU foreign policy. Yet, it will be precisely the lack of a unified and coherent China policy that could prevent EU member states from securing their strategic priorities when it comes to a globally growing China.

Relations between the EU and China are at a turning point. As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen laid out in an assertive March 30 speech, EU-China relations have become unbalanced due to “distortions created by China’s state capitalist system” and Beijing’s ambition to become “the world’s most powerful nation.” Brussels doesn’t support “decoupling,” but says China’s rise comprises high risks for democratic regimes.

The European Union needs to act now, and von der Leyen offered several keys, including:

  1. making a better use of existing EU tools such as the recent anti-coercion instrument (ACI), the FDI screening mechanism, and foreign subsidies regulation;
  2. bringing new tools to assist sensitive industries and technologies (quantum computing, AI, biotech, etc.);
  3. aligning with partners such as Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan, the G7, the G20, Mercosur, and others to avoid the “divide and conquer” tactics often used by China in the past (for example: for several years, China used the 17+1 group to attempt a direct dialogue with Eastern and Central European countries, outside of the EU framework; the platform has now become almost dormant).

Above all, the European economy should be more competitive to counter other big powers, including China. The von der Leyen speech should also be analyzed alongside the visit that she will be making with French President Emmanuel Macron to Beijing from April 5 to 8. After the EU chief’s straightforward statement of the EU’s conditions (“Any peace plan which would in effect consolidate Russian annexations is simply not a viable plan”), the French president will be able to appear as the chief negotiator on Ukraine, one of the key subjects of his trip (the other subject is France’s long-term commitment to the Indo-Pacific).

As far as Ukraine is concerned, the aim is to convince Xi Jinping to make a move towards President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, especially following Xi’s one-sided visit to Moscow late last month. Europeans now appear united on defending their Ukraine line, and want to negotiate with China on the basis of two strategically independent powers: China (now duly recognized by Europe as a great power), and the EU (a bloc that is gradually making its “strategic autonomy” one of its foreign policy key-pillars). Having said that, Europeans (especially Eastern and Central Europeans) are realistic about what they can obtain from Xi. At the end of the day, it is the United States and NATO that are preventing Putin’s Russia from conquering and occupying more Ukrainian territory.

Interestingly, neither von der Leyen nor Macron have referred to the United States in their recent statements on China, although they have insisted on Europe’s will to play a role in the Indo-Pacific, including through investment in and financing of infrastructures (the EU Global Gateway strategy). To countries of the vast Indo-Pacific region, the EU is now saying: “we are offering you a genuine choice”—and one quite different from China’s Belt and Road initiative which, as recent history has shown, carries financial and political risks for recipient countries.

Finally, “de-risking,” as von der Leyen referred to it, includes resilience and diversification for Europe and its partners. It is clear that the EU doesn’t want to stay on the side-lines of the Indo-Pacific, and will increase cooperation with as many possible nations of that region.

The European Union is aligning with the U.S. on its diagnosis and prescriptions concerning the China challenge. A steady deterioration of China’s image in Europe has been hastened by the war in Ukraine. China’s response is understood in Europe, especially Central and Eastern Europe, as a de facto condoning of Russia’s aggression, and Xi’s stance on Taiwan is now more readily associated by public and elite opinion alike with Putin’s imperial aggression, to the extent that a Russia-China autocratic axis is taken for granted. The politicization of China in national and EU parliaments, as well as international political factors—such as weaponizing “public diplomacy” to put a spotlight on Chinese actions—have fed into these views. Italy is illustrative of these changes, with Giorgia Meloni’s government openly considering not renewing the (largely symbolic and tame) 2019 Belt and Road Initiative Memorandum of Understanding between Italy and China.

In 2020, the EU and its member states were still toying with the idea of a “third way” amidst U.S.-China competition, so much so that EU High Representative Josep Borrell called for a Sinatra “My Way” Doctrine. Yet, since the Trump era, the U.S. government has lobbied NATO allies and EU member states to focus on China. With Joe Biden, this mission has been in line with the aspiration to leverage techno-democratic allies against techno-autocracies, thus merging the Indo-Pacific with the Euro-Atlantic theaters (politically rather than militarily). The war in Ukraine has empowered these narratives, as evidenced by the language on China and “authoritarian actors” in the recent EU-NATO Joint Declaration.

This alignment is also a by-product of Europe’s growing “strategic dependency” on the U.S., in both defense and energy. Fear of potential U.S. disengagement, especially from Central and Eastern European NATO allies, but also Germany, feeds into political alignment. Finally, the support received by major U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific, which have been accepted as NATO Asia-Pacific partners (AP4), has fed into growing security synergies between the EU and Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. This coalition of middle powers is not aimed at a “third way” to ameliorate the security dilemma embedded in U.S.-China hegemonic rivalry, but is more or less aligning with the U.S.

In fact, 2023 will witness an increased military presence of “like-minded” countries in the Indo-Pacific region, especially from within the G7 ranks plus Australia and South Korea. Notable examples include joint military exercises in the Pacific, to the extent that Italy will dispatch an aircraft carrier battlegroup all the way to Japan and, separately, a multipurpose patrol vessel to the region. The U.S. and middle powers such as Japan will allow for extra-regional players’ military presence through Reciprocal Access Agreements and Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreements. Still, mature foreign policies can and should walk the security talk and chew the diplomatic gum at the same time, keeping China’s market open at a time of economic turbulence and protectionism, and engaging China in serious security and political talks to avoid the worst and maintain a modicum of stability in world politics. Hopefully Washington will be able to align with Europe’s approach as well.

One year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, EU-China relations continue to be overshadowed by China’s pro-Russia position. Indeed, long gone are the times when the EU was optimistic about China and focused primarily on business opportunities.

Although this reading of the situation generally applies to almost all EU countries (exceptions might be Hungary and Greece), the differences within the EU are made apparent by how each nation has decided to approach China in this context. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main dividing line can be drawn roughly between the East and the West.

The main point of divergence appears to be whether to talk to Beijing at all. Many countries in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) seem to consider it a waste of time, counter-productive, or even immoral. Last year, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia announced their departure from the now infamous 16+1 platform of China-CEE cooperation. Other CEE countries have not shown interest in high-level meetings with Chinese leaders either: in the last (online) summit of China-CEE leaders, only five CEE presidents (Poland, Czech Republic, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina) met with Xi Jinping, while six countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia) were represented at levels lower than prime minister.

Instead, Czech leaders now tour Taiwan. At the end of March, Speaker of the Lower House Markéta Pekarová Adamová visited the island, following in the footsteps of Speaker of the Upper House (Senate President) Miloš Vystrčil, who visited in 2020. The two are the only parliamentary leaders from the EU to pay official visits to Taiwan in decades. Other CEE countries have also sent—and receivedgovernment and parliamentary delegations.

In turn, EU leaders and leaders of some Western European countries have recently started traveling to China. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited in November 2022, followed by European Council President Charles Michel. More leaders have shown up in Beijing in early 2023, including Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, while the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen is set to visit this week alongside French President Emmanuel Macron.

While visiting leaders don’t resort to “business as usual,” they do stress that contact with China needs to be preserved and insist something can be achieved with such meetings. Von der Leyen summed it up in her speech before the visit: “We must ensure diplomatic stability and open communication lines with China. We also do not want to cut economic ties with a vital trading partner. . . Our story about our relationship to China is not fully written.”

Discussing the Russia-Ukraine war—and China’s role in it—is obviously at the top of the agenda. Germany’s chancellor considered it a success that Xi Jinping publicly declared his opposition to the use of nuclear weapons, and the Spanish prime minister used his meeting to urge Xi to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In turn, the sentiment in CEE countries is leaning towards the position that China is part of the problem, and there is little appetite to be seen as too cozy when meeting Chinese leaders.

One might recall that similar regional divisions within Europe appeared when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, leading to the then U.S. secretary of defense criticizing Germany and France as the “Old Europe” while praising supporters as the “New Europe.” 20 years later, many would consent that the “New Europe” was too hasty in following the U.S. History will again judge whether “Old Europe” is naïve to keep talking to China in the current context or if something can be achieved this way.

The European Union and the U.S. share the same perspective on core values of international relations and the changes that have taken place in China in the last decade. However, they partly draw different conclusions from the common assessments regarding the policies that follow from them.

The European Union’s prosperity is based on its ability to trade. This is especially true for export nations like Germany. Therefore, defending multilateralism, the rules-based international order, and open and fair trade is a core interest of the EU. Consequently, the core question for the EU is not primarily whether to follow the American policy of containment, but rather what the best strategies for defending the EU’s values and interests are.

It is in the common interest for the EU and the U.S. for European leaders to talk to China, reiterating the European message, because what is clearly lacking at the moment is diplomacy. In the U.S., too, there are voices who argue that a simple containment strategy promises little success if it is not flanked by diplomacy. At the same time, despite calls for decoupling, trade between the U.S. and China has reached a record high.

Alongside this, the EU members collectively and individually must define: Where can we work with China, where can’t we achieve without China, and where must we counter China?

China’s President Xi Jinping stated in 2020 that China must ensure that international industrial chains become more dependent on China as a countermeasure or deterrent against external supply cuts. If this is a strategy, it was a successful one. China is a “vital trading partner” for the EU, receiving 9 percent of the EU’s exports and supplying more than 20 percent of its imports. The EU is dependent on China for 98 percent of its rare earth minerals, and several systemically important companies are highly reliant on the Chinese market. Hence, this is not just an economic relationship but one with potential political consequences. And this is why this relationship needs, as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated, “de-risking.”

It is easily overlooked in the current debate that the economic dependencies between the EU and China are mutual. Even more, according to the European Business Chamber, China is more dependent on the EU than vice versa, as the European market and consumers support 14 million jobs in China and 2.2 percent of China’s GDP. Beijing is currently concerned about possible Dutch export controls for high-performance chips. China is currently the main supplier of electric vehicle battery components in Europe and is expanding in the European electric vehicle market. But maintaining its market access is not a given, and the EU could end reliance on China by 2030. Lastly, investment is still a channel for China to access technological know-how—not only in areas of potential dual use, which the EU is set to restrict. Hence China’s high interest in the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) being resumed (which is currently, from the EU side, unlikely).

China’s access to the European market would be at risk if China begins to openly support Russia militarily, or in the event of a military seizure of Taiwan, and if the EU decouples from China, it would become much more difficult for Xi to achieve his declared goal of “common prosperity.” Thus, the European single market is a powerful tool to claim fundamental European values—which are also transatlantic values. One that the EU should use strategically.

As French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Beijing to discuss—among other issues—China’s role in the Ukraine crisis, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was in the United States for meetings with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other congressional leaders. More than timing links the two trips. Ukraine and Taiwan are entangled in the U.S.’s and Europe’s increasingly fraught relationships with China.

Beijing’s Taiwan policy was a growing factor in Europe’s souring views of China before Russia invaded Ukraine. Most famously, after Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open a representative office under the name “Taiwan,” Beijing complained about Vilnius’s violation of the “one China principle,” banned imports from Lithuania, and targeted firms elsewhere in Europe with de facto secondary sanctions. The EU notably backed Lithuania, and the incident reinforced already-emerging concerns in Europe about Beijing’s use of economic power to political ends. European concerns about vulnerability to Chinese economic coercion were amplified when Putin sought to use dependence on Russian energy to weaken European solidarity in supporting Ukraine. Von der Leyen’s March 30 speech is a high-profile manifestation of such concerns and of Europe’s new determination to mitigate China’s use of economic leverage.

Beijing’s posture on Russia’s war and the much-discussed analogies between Ukraine and Taiwan scenarios have interacted and reinforced the downward spiral in Europe’s views of China. From the eve-of-invasion declaration of limitless cooperation between China and Russia through Xi Jinping’s state visit to Moscow on the heels of the International Criminal Court’s warrant for Putin, China has signaled support for Russia, backed up by economic—although not military—assistance. Beijing’s warning against using nuclear weapons and its thin plan for peace have been too little to change the narrative. China’s assertion that use of force against a neighbor that occupies what Beijing regards as (temporarily) lost territory and that is not a real state all too strongly echoes Putin’s claimed justification for invading Ukraine and fosters in Europe (and elsewhere) a sense of linkage between Russia-Ukraine and China-Taiwan. Notwithstanding Beijing’s contention that the two cases are “different in nature” (with Taiwan being a purely “internal affair”), Beijing appears to be, at best, soft on principles prohibiting aggressive warfare and protecting state sovereignty that it has long espoused and that Ukraine has revived as deadly serious issues for Europe.

Taiwan’s and Ukraine’s common status as new democracies facing existential threats from much more powerful authoritarian neighbors has placed China starkly on the wrong side of a divide over fundamental values that Putin’s war has made more salient for Europe, including in its relations with China. The April 1, 2022, EU-China virtual summit showcases China’s failure to appreciate this aspect of Ukraine war-era European thinking. Such dissonance over political values resonates in a time when alignment with “like-minded” states has taken centerstage in foreign policy in Europe, as well as the United States.

Europe’s assessments of China and views of Taiwan have moved toward positions that the U.S. has favored. But this has not brought consensus. In recent years, Washington’s views of China have become still more negative and, relatedly, signals of support for Taiwan have grown much stronger, maintaining a gap between European and American positions. And there are differences within Europe as well although the pattern has changed, perhaps most notably by some states in Central and Eastern Europe shifting from relatively high optimism and engagement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (in the 17+1 framework) to becoming some of China’s sharpest critics and Taiwan’s most vocal supporters in Europe.