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Interview: China and Europe
#45: With Noah Barkin
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Noah Barkin is an expert on Europe-China relations and a Managing Editor at Rhodium Group’s China practice. As a Visiting Senior Fellow in the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund, he also writes the Watching China in Europe newsletter. Our questions are in bold, his answers in quotation marks.
Broadly speaking, what is the European Union’s approach to Beijing?
“In March 2019, the EU described China as a partner, competitor and systemic rival. That is still the language of choice in most European capitals, although the balance between these three labels has clearly shifted in recent years, away from partnership and towards competition and rivalry. Europe wants to remain in dialogue with China, it does not want to isolate China, and it believes that global challenges like climate change cannot be solved without China. But at the same time, it has become more realistic about the challenges that a more assertive, economically powerful China poses to Europe and the global system.”
How has it changed over the last five years?
“We have seen a steady deterioration of relations between the EU and China over the past five years. This started with concerns about industrial competitiveness, Chinese acquisitions on the continent and the treatment of European firms in China. But geopolitical factors are playing an increasing role. China’s aggressive diplomacy and spreading of disinformation at the outset of the pandemic, its crackdown in Hong Kong, rights abuses in Xinjiang, saber rattling with Taiwan, sanctions against European lawmakers, economic coercion against Lithuania, and strategic partnership with Russia have all contributed to a reassessment across Europe. Overwhelming majorities in most major European countries now have a negative view of China.”
What are contentious policy issues to watch?
“The number one issue is Ukraine. China sealed a “no limits” partnership with Russia weeks before its invasion in February 2022, and since then, Beijing has refused to criticize Moscow in spite of the atrocities it is committing. Lately, we have seen signs that Chinese officials want to put some distance between Beijing and Moscow. But Europe would like to see more than rhetorical signals. The other big issue is Taiwan. European capitals will be watching closely whether China steps up its threats and influence operations against the island in the run-up to presidential elections there in January 2024. Lastly, China’s March 2021 sanctions against European lawmakers, research institutions and foundations doomed passage of the EU-China investment agreement and will continue to complicate the bilateral economic agenda as long as they are in place.”
The German government is working on a new China strategy. What do you expect?
“The German government is deeply divided on China policy, with ministers from the Greens party pushing for a fundamental rethink, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz clinging to a crumbling status quo and wary about rocking the boat. The China strategy, which we expect to be published in the first half of this year, cannot resolve the differences in Berlin. Nor will the strategy itself bring about a major change in Germany’s approach. Instead, it is likely to codify the shift towards a more clear-eyed approach to China that has been under discussion in Berlin and other European capitals for several years. For many years, Germany viewed China as little more than a massive, lucrative market for its firms. The China strategy will make clear that those days are over, and that China now poses real challenges and threats in the economic, political and security realms.”
To what extent are Germany and France united when it comes to China?
“There are no fundamental differences between Germany and France on China. Germany has by far the bigger economic relationship with China and can ruffle feathers in Paris when it is seen to be putting its own trade and investment interests first. France has its own economic interests in China, but it tends to see the country primarily through a strategic autonomy lens. It has cultivated its ties with Beijing, in part because it wants to ensure that Europe does not drift too far into the American camp. One important difference is that France sees itself as a security player in the Indo-Pacific, because of its overseas territories, whereas Germany does not.”
What are the main disagreements between the United States and Europe?
“The language that political leaders in Europe and the United States use when talking about China has converged since the Biden administration came into office. Still, as we begin 2023, there is a substantial transatlantic gap on China policy. The US is the incumbent superpower and sees China as a major threat to its economic prosperity and international influence. The EU does not have the same skin in the game. It is not as willing to pay an economic price in the name of national security, and it does not have the same sense of urgency in tackling the challenges posed by China. The differences center around how fast and far to go in addressing the challenges posed by China, rather than in the definition of those challenges, where there is a degree of consensus.”
What does the Chinese government hope for in its relationship with Europe?
“China wants two very simple things from Europe. First, it wants to be able to continue to engage economically with Europe through trade and investment. The European market is of paramount importance to China, especially at a time when its economic ties with the US are increasingly seen through a national security lens in Washington. Continued investment by European firms in China is also crucial in order for China to gain access to technology and know-how. The second aim centers around geopolitics. China wants to ensure that Europe does not move too far into the US camp because this would call many of the benefits it gleans from Europe into question and undermine China's push to play a more influential role on the global stage.”
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