Wider Eurasia
Chinese Logic and European Theatre

China attempts to delay, to the greatest extent possible, the process of direct conflict with the United States and its allies. This conflict is of a strategic nature, and is linked to simple competition for access to global resources and markets. Meanwhile, Europeans do not have significant stakes in this US-China confrontation, and their attitude towards involvement is largely negative, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.

It would be a misconception for Beijing to believe that economic interests would prevent Europe from supporting its American ally if Sino-US relations reach a critical point. For now, however, both sides believe that such a scenario can be averted, and Washington and Beijing have confidence in their ability to prevail without a direct confrontation. We do not yet know how long the period of uncertainty and relative calm between the two major economic powers will last. Until the US pressure on Europe regarding the Chinese issue becomes more significant, European countries will not seek confrontation with China. This gives the Chinese leadership hope that, even if a complete split within the Western bloc is unlikely, the current level of tension in its policy towards Europe is sufficient to be considered as a success.

The recent visit of the President of China Xi Jinping to several European countries, including France, is a reflection of China’s strategy to identify a “weak link” in the Western bloc. China is aware that, despite the strong influence of the United States in Europe, some European leaders still seek a degree of independence. While this desire for autonomy may not be significant, it is important for European leaders to appear to have some degree of freedom in their relations with China.

This is particularly relevant for larger EU countries, given their subordination to US policy with regards to Russia. It is therefore not surprising that the Chinese leader received a warm welcome in Paris, as his visit can be evidenced that France remains an important player in international affairs.

Furthermore, the Europeans still possess certain instruments of influence. The trade volume between the EU countries and China has been consistently decreasing, leaving Asian countries and, in the near future, Russia behind. However, the European countries still remain the second most significant market for Chinese goods, as well as an important source of investment and technology that China may require. Most major shipping companies dealing with China have European origins, and the ports of Rotterdam and Hamburg handle significant amounts of Chinese cargo.

Therefore, the weakening of China’s economic ties with Europe would certainly be a setback for the Europeans, but it would cause even greater harm to the well-being of China and its economic position. At present, the European Union remains the second largest foreign economic partner of China after the ASEAN nations. While this is true in aggregate terms, it is understood that the primary contributors are continental partners such as Germany, France, and Italy. Relations between these countries and China have been notably warm, and mutual visits have always been accompanied by the signing of new investment and trade agreements. Any erosion, let alone a rupture, in relations with Europe would constitute a significant threat to the Chinese economy, which has been the foundation for the well-being of people — a crucial achievement of the Chinese government since the 1970s.

Beijing is not willing to take such a risk, as it would mean losing a major source of support for government policies and national pride. Additionally, China is aware of the reluctance of European countries to participate in US sanctions against Russia. This indicates that the major European Union countries will not willingly sever economic ties with China. Beijing sees this attitude of Europe as positive for the future of its relations, particularly considering that European governments and political elites harbour little genuine opposition to China. First, China is far away from Europe and is not seen as a source of opposition to European elites. New political parties in Europe may look to Russia, but they do not consider China to be an example. Second, the European political establishment does not perceive any significant potential in using the “Chinese challenge” as a means to sustain its authority in the face of reductions in social spending amid a general decline in living standards in most European Union member states. Consequently, the most powerful European countries do not consider it necessary to sacrifice economic relations with China in order to serve their domestic political objectives.

It should be noted that in China there is a strong belief that the economy plays a significant role in global politics. This is reflected in Chinese foreign policy, which is influenced by Marxist thinking, where the economic “basis” is seen as more significant than the political “superstructure”. This viewpoint cannot be easily challenged, especially considering that China’s political position in the world in recent decades has been largely shaped by its economic achievements and self-generated wealth.

It is not so important that economic successes have not resolved all of China’s most significant political issues, such as Taiwan’s status, Tibet’s full recognition, or territorial disputes with countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. The fact remains that China’s voice is heard in international politics. This has been achieved through the strength of its diplomatic efforts. This is something that is very noticeable among ordinary Chinese citizens, who see their confidence in the future prospects of their country as an important success of China’s foreign policy. Therefore, Beijing believes that strengthening economic ties with the European Union is the best way to ensure that the leading countries of the region will restrain any adventurous US policies towards China.

China attempts to delay, to the greatest extent possible, the process of direct conflict with the United States and its allies. This conflict is of a strategic nature, and is linked to simple competition for access to global resources and markets. Taiwan is also a potential source of tension. The United States supports its de facto independence from the People’s Republic of China and supplies it with weapons.

Europeans do not have significant stakes in this US-China confrontation, and their attitude towards involvement is largely negative. The European perspective with regards to this conflict is ambivalent. On the one hand, a conflict with China could result in the United States reducing its presence in Europe, and continuing to shift the burden of fighting Russia onto its European allies. European leaders do not wish this and avoid taking on economic responsibility for the Ukrainian regime. However, on the other hand, there is a possibility that Paris and Berlin could strengthen their positions within the Western world and achieve a gradual normalisation of relations with Moscow. While they clearly seek the latter outcome, they are operating under the pressure of numerous restrictions.

In Europe, they may hope that the more the confrontation between the United States and China escalates, the less pressure the Americans will exert on their allies regarding the Russian issue, and the weaker the “fifth column” of the United States within Europe— the three Baltic republics or Poland — will be. These expectations, while possibly erroneous, shape the behaviour of leading European powers on the issue of China. Based on this perceived uncertainty in Europe’s stance, China may believe that the longer Europe hesitates to take decisive action against China, the less likely the United States will initiate real actions against China. And this, ultimately, is consistent with China’s overall strategy — to defeat the US without engaging in direct armed conflict with it, which is something that China rightly fears.

To be sure, the Chinese authorities themselves have never spoken about their intention to split the Europeans from the United States. In its official statements, Beijing always emphasizes that it does not aim to create a split within the West. China also communicates this position to the expert community through closed communication channels. It does it so convincingly that this even causes concern among some Russian observers. Although, in reality, we should welcome any efforts of our Chinese friends to introduce doubts inside the orderly ranks of the “collective West”. For now, the Europeans seem quite satisfied with the Chinese rhetoric. The fact that Beijing, unlike Moscow, does not publicly speak about the need for greater European independence, allows Paris and Berlin to camouflage their intrigues with the Chinese. Moreover, their American masters themselves have preferred not to notice such frivolous behaviour for the time being.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.