Noah BarkinVisiting Academic Fellow At The Mercator Institute For China Studies
Yes, by all means. The EU has shown that when it pulls together it can push back against China quite effectively. The European Commission’s March 2019 communication, which described China as a “systemic rival,” is one example. Another is its 5G risk assessment from October, which warned against using telecommunications suppliers from authoritarian states.
Europe runs into trouble, however, when its members go their own way. Smaller states like Hungary and Greece are often accused of succumbing to China’s divide-and-rule tactics. But big states are also to blame. Germany, with its deep economic ties to China, has consistently shied away from confrontation. France’s veto of EU membership talks with North Macedonia risks pushing aspiring Balkan states into China’s embrace.
The coming year will be crucial in determining whether European unity or division prevails. This starts with 5G, where Germany, France, and Britain could set an example by prioritizing national security over economic interests. It is also about standing up for democracy in Hong Kong and human rights in Xinjiang, and taking steps to level the playing field on investments, procurement, and trade if China refuses to budge. This is not about bowing to U.S. President Donald Trump’s will. Europe needs to chart its own distinct path. But to do so successfully, it must act together.
Lizza BomassiDeputy Director of Carnegie Europe
A bit of realism is needed in answering this question. There are areas where Europe needs to cooperate with China, areas where it needs to confront China, and areas where it needs to compete with China.
On climate change, one of the greatest global threats of our time, Europe needs to cooperate and build workable partnerships with countries like China, India, and others if we are to meet the challenges we face collectively.
On Europe’s core values of democracy and human rights, Europe must defend this fundamental part of its identity and confront that task head on. A rule of law that respects society’s safeguards exists in the West. This is not the case in China.
Competing with China is more complex. From trade to technology, Europeans have been their own worst enemy, allowing themselves to be divided and conquered. There are European countries who have welcomed China with open arms—for example through China’s Belt and Road Initiative—and others who convene regularly with China in a format that deliberately divides European member states—for example the China-CEEC initiative.
Europe needs to manage competition with China more effectively and creatively with the tools it has at its shared disposal. The EU’s investment screening mechanism is a right step in this direction, but it needs to be strengthened with more legitimacy from Europe’s member states, and similar efforts to boost Europe’s collective leverage need to be developed.
Nicola CasariniSenior Fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali
Yes, the European Union can stand up to China, but to do that Brussels needs to focus on a select list of issues of strategic importance so as to achieve maximum impact.
Equally important is to identify and distinguish between those issues where China is a challenge—and thus needs to be contained—and those policy areas where Beijing can become a partner and even a temporary ally to advance EU interests and fundamental values.
In a recent paper, I argue that the EU needs to:
- Defend European jobs, industrial competitiveness, and technological sovereignty from China’s state-controlled economy and unfair trade practices.
- Defend EU fundamental values and principles from the Chinese authoritarian political system.
- Engage China to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement on climate change, strengthen the multilateral trading system, and address global security challenges.
- Maximize EU-China relations to save the Iran nuclear deal, reform the international monetary system, and put limits on the dollar’s exorbitant privilege.
By adopting a multifaceted approach and concentrating efforts on a limited number of issues of strategic importance, the EU can indeed stand up to China.
Theresa FallonDirector Of The Centre For Russia Europe Asia Studies
Clearly no. It has been clear since 2016—with Europe’s watered-down and weak statement in regard to the arbitral tribunal decision on Philippines v China—that Europe, as the Chinese ambassador declared, was neutralized.
To Beijing’s credit, they are a formidable force, and up until December 1, 2019, the EU strictly abstained from “doing geopolitics.” This allowed Beijing to make deep inroads of influence within the EU—carving out a subregional grouping now known as the 17+1 in Central and Eastern Europe—in the Balkans, and in Africa.
Investments across Europe—including ports, airports, electrical grids, and strategic infrastructure—have also bought Beijing valuable influence. Europe was open for business, and since they were “post-modern,” Europeans convinced themselves they no longer needed to think strategically. Former European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s “doing less better” did not quite clinch what was required to face the China challenge.
New European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, being a former defense minister, thinks far more strategically and understands the challenges Europe faces; she has christened this commission a geopolitical one.
However, can bureaucrats, whose fallback justification was “we don’t do geopolitics,” somehow grow a geostrategic-thinking muscle in an already divided Europe? Given today’s fierce geostrategic rivalries and China’s large inroads into Europe, this may be too little too late.
Paul HaenleDirector Of The Carnegie–Tsinghua Center For Global Policy
Europe is trying to strike a balance with China between maintaining beneficial economic ties while at the same time standing up to Beijing where its policies and behavior are threatening to undermine Europe’s interests and values.
During 2019, China celebrated several important diplomatic victories in Europe. Italy became the first EU country to endorse Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative. China added a new member to the now 17+1 forum. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel made high-profile visits that focused on “win-win” efforts to include trade. Trump has also called the EU a “foe” and levied tariffs on a growing number of European imports, opening cracks in the transatlantic relationship that Beijing is now strategically exploiting.
However, Europe is also attempting to not back down in the face of a more aggressive China. Last March, the European Commission labeled China an “economic competitor” and a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.” European countries took the lead in a diplomatic effort to denounce Beijing for its policies in Xinjiang, a statement that did not receive full support from a number of non-European and Muslim countries. France and Germany have also released a defensive industrial policy designed to protect their markets from Beijing’s unfair and distorting economic practices, and a critical debate is raging over Huawei’s participation in the development of Europe’s 5G infrastructure.
Europe, like the United States, has woken up to a more aggressive China and is beginning to push back.
Jyrki KallioSenior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
To ask “can Europe stand up to China?” is no different from asking “can Europe stand up to the United States?” or “to Russia?” or “to its own internal forces when they pose a threat to European core values, which include respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality, and the rule of law?”
Europe can stand up to China if, and only if, it can stay true to its values and maintain unity.
With regard to staying true to its values, the most imminent threat comes from within the European societies in the form of intolerance and populism. When lines of division are formed in Europe, it is less because of China and more because of the populist governments using China as a means for their anti-European policies. Therefore, Europe must urgently strengthen its value base.
With regard to maintaining unity in the face of external threats and pressures, Europe needs internal solidarity. The pressure felt by any one country should be collectively shared by all, and no country should be left alone.
Alica KizekováSenior Researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague
The EU has taken a more jaundiced view of China by calling for fairer competition and security guarantees. But to succeed, it relies on the implementation of a similar approach toward Beijing between individual European states. I believe that the EU and non-EU countries will continue to pursue independent policies toward China, tailored to their needs and to their level of political, diplomatic, and economic relations.
There is, however, less naivety about the outcomes of bilateral agreements and promised investments. As such, with the right coordination by EU leadership and officials, there could be a more consistent handling of cases by member states when breaches of EU standards, unfair business practices, or proven influence by the Chinese government take place in Europe and become known. But this will require an ongoing discussion and more engagement from Brussels in individual member states, beyond the official circles.
Ultimately, to improve the EU’s chances of standing up to China and strengthening the EU’s China policy, it is vital to achieve more understanding of what needs to be done by various stakeholders.
Philippe Le CorreNonresident Senior Fellow At The Carnegie Endowment For International Peace
In light of the increasingly aggressive pushback from Chinese diplomats in Europe, there is only one correct attitude for Europeans to adopt: a Brussels-led, unified stance with support from national governments. This would follow up on the multiple initiatives from 2019, which include the EU-China strategy, the EU’s foreign investment screening mechanism, the 5G risk assessment, and the new connectivity policies currently being implemented by the European External Action Service.
Although it is being criticized for lagging behind, Europe has adjusted to China’s rise quicker in the past year than in the past decade. Discrepancies between the member states may remain, but there is now an understanding that the Chinese Communist regime will not compromise on key aspects of the relationship. Any activities abroad involving Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, or Xinjiang have led to strong reactions from Chinese embassies. Currently, Sweden is being punished for awarding a free speech literary price to jailed Swedish citizen and bookseller Gui Minhai.
While the EU’s China statements used to focus on trade, that changed in 2016 when the European External Action Service commented on Chinese activities in the South China Sea. In 2019, the EU has released several statements on the current situation in Hong Kong, prompting strong responses from Beijing. Now is the time for the commission to stand up for the European rules and values that constitute the union.
On the economic front, there is only one approach: demand reciprocity and access to the China market for European companies, with much-needed transparency on procurement policy.
Michael PettisNonresident Senior Fellow at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center For Global Policy
The easy answer, of course, is that when it comes to China there is no Europe. There are different countries that—in response mainly to domestic political and economic conditions at the given time—try to game the European position, or the positions of other large European countries, toward China.
The result is that Beijing can generally put the EU, or any large European country, at a negotiating disadvantage simply by offering concessions to individual countries or by promising investments to heavily indebted countries that need it—without even much need to deliver.
This won’t change until either institutional changes are implemented that eliminate or reduce incentives for national leaders to game Europe, or until Germany takes on the responsibility of uniting Europe economically behind a major surge in domestic investment and consumption—one big enough to reverse the huge surpluses of the past ten to fifteen years and allow it, not China, to control the purse strings.
For now, however, perhaps Europe can explicitly and legally carve out smaller specialized areas such as defense, technology, and banking, which may be less susceptible to political interference, and in which the EU can move toward enforceable common positions, not just toward China but also toward other powers.
Norbert RöttgenMember Of Parliament In Germany For The Christian Democratic Union
We no longer live in a world where “standing up” to a nation is an adequate category for classifying relations. Even the most powerful states, the United States and China, are interdependent and their fates cannot be that easily decoupled. The same holds true for Europe, which rightly views China as a partner, competitor, and rival.
Where China is a partner, we need to talk about cooperation, not contestation. The example of combating global climate change shows that common interests exist. But cooperation needs to be voluntary. We cannot force China to collaborate against its will. At the same time, we can strengthen Europe’s position in relation to China by speaking with one voice and by consolidating our own technological abilities.
Instead of standing up to China, we should stand with our partners. Doing so will automatically maximize our leverage internationally in dealing with China’s multifaceted nature and global rise.