Anchoring China-Europe relations in the future

Editor’s note: How can China-Europe relations move forward with a Europe divided? From our interviews with European officials, business people, and experts, we took a glimpse at the answer. Take a look.

Chinese President Xi Jinping will be visiting Europe. There are many areas of common interest. China and EU have become each other’s second largest trading partners. Nearly $100 million worth of goods are flowing between them every hour. Both China and the EU have vowed to uphold multilateralism and promote multipolarity in the global community. In their own different ways, China and EU are trying to seek or preserve independence and autonomy in deciding their own policies.

However, as President Xi embarks on his first visit to Europe in five years, he’ll be visiting a Europe divided, divided between China and the United States. In March, 2023, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gave the infamous “de-risking from China” speech, presented a moderate version of the de-coupling policy the United States pursued. Weeks later, French President Emmanuel Macron warned against reducing trade and diplomatic ties with China. And when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Beijing the first time, he was criticized as putting Germany’s business interests over EU’s long-term strategic priorities.

There’s also the question of how close should the EU be following the U.S. Macron caused quite a stir last year by saying that France should not get caught up in the escalation between China and the United States. He said “being an ally does not mean being a vassal…doesn’t mean that we don’t have the right to think for ourselves.” Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, said We developed a strategy to bolster our strategic autonomy and European sovereignty. We agreed to spend more on defense and to strengthen our industrial capabilities by investing more in our defense. French President Emmanuel Macron said that “Europe can no longer leave its defense to the U.S. It is now up to us to take our own responsibility and to guarantee the safety and also therefore the sovereignty of the European Union.”

As I speak to more and more European officials, business people and experts on China-Europe relations, I see a common desire: To look beyond this moment. Peter Grk, Secretary General of the Bled Strategic Forum, Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Republic of Slovenia, said in an interview that “we want to engage, we want to listen, we want to understand” and that “what we bring to the table is our capacity to listen and our capacity to actually try to find compromises in order for the global community to move forward.” President of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China Jens Eskelund said that “I think we need in some ways also to see the EU-China relationship as an EU-China relationship and make sure that even though, of course, that relationship is influenced by what happens in the China-U.S. space, but also insist that there are things that are unique to the EU-China relationship and maybe try to focus on them also.”

What’s unique? Well, here’s one. Back in 2017, China and the EU did something few expected. On June 1, 2017, then U.S. President Donald Trump announced his decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement. As the U.S. made its announcement, China and the EU had already prepared to respond. The EU’s climate commissioner Miguel Arias Canete told the Guardian that “No one should be left behind, but the EU and China have decided to move forward. Our successful cooperation on issues like emissions trading and clean technologies are bearing fruit. Now is the time to further strengthen these ties to keep the wheels turning on ambitious global climate action.” In a joint statement in 2018, China and the EU underscored their “highest political commitment” to the effective implementation of the deal.

Saving the Paris Agreement didn’t mean Europe was giving up on its old ally. It didn’t mean it was suddenly best buddies with China. But it did signal that, even within a difficult political climate, China and the EU could reach agreements on issues that matter to the long-term welfare of their people and the global community. Huw Slater, Climate and energy specialist from ClientEarth, said that “I think the strength of the relationship that’s been built over the last decade or two – a very, very close engagement, both between policy-makers and experts and civil society – puts us in good stead that I think that bilateral relationship will hold up to some extent.” “And that’s really important, because international cooperation can go one or two ways, and we really want relationships like the EU-China one to stay solid and lead to more progress,” he said.

Long-termism might sound lofty and vague, but that’s the only way to keep the relationship between two sides that have different systems, that are competing and disagreeing with each other, away from the day-to-day political sway. Like the people I talked to said, China and Europe have to move forward.