EU foreign policy is damaging relations with China, and dividing EU member states

Xuechen Chen and Xinchuchu Gao argue that the EU’s decision to securitise China lies behind the recent deterioration in EU-China relations. Yet divergent views among member states are hampering EU policy, resulting in incoherent and inconsistent implementation at national levels

Collective securitisation

EU-China relations are among the most significant in today’s global politics. The two blocs account for more than 30% of world GDP.

Bilateral relations in were established in 1975. Since then, the EU and China have developed annual summits, sectoral dialogues, and regular ministerial meetings, alongside other diplomatic interactions. This highly institutionalised economic and diplomatic relationship has always been reasonably amicable, albeit never cosy.

However, the past few years have witnessed a sharp deterioration in relations, most visible in the EU’s 2019 ‘strategic outlook’. This document labelled China a 'systemic rival' and a 'systemic competitor'. How, then, can we explain this recent deterioration in EU-China relations?

The economic and diplomatic relationship between the EU and China has always been reasonably amicable, albeit never cosy

We recently wrote a research article about EU foreign policy towards China since the mid-2010s. In it, we show that this policy has been characterised by collective securitsation. Through this process, the EU has framed China as an existential threat to the Union’s core interests and values. In so doing, it has called for exceptional measures to address the threat. Yet EU member states differ on whether to consider China an existential threat, and this is hampering smooth implementation of the EU’s collective foreign policy towards Beijing.

From partner to rival and threat

Between the 1970s and the early 2010s, the EU did not perceive China as an existential threat or a security challenge. Rather, the EU framed China as an important 'partner'. China was 'a locomotive for regional and global growth', and 'an increasingly energetic player in world affairs'. That perception has changed drastically since the mid-2010s. The shift was triggered by a number of factors.

Longer-term factors include the relative decline of the EU’s overall power in world politics, a broader shift of economic power towards Asia and, since 2012, the EU’s intention to side with the US on issues such as the South China Sea dispute.

Between the 1970s and the early 2010s, the EU did not perceive China as a security challenge

More recent factors include China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy approaches under Xi’s leadership. There has also been a sharp increase in economic and trade frictions between the EU and China, and China has emerged as a major technology and cyber power.

Yet growing anxiety about China in Brussels has not translated into a coherent line of securitisation. The EU has constructed numerous reference points, centring on policy areas where they perceive China constitutes a threat.

Securitising China in different policy sectors

First, the EU used to see China as a force for good. China was committed to improving relations with its neighbours, and to promoting peace in Asia. Now, however, Brussels considers China a security challenge for Asian regional stability. The EU is concerned, for example, about China’s assertive regional policy and the escalation of South China Sea disputes. These constitute a potential threat to EU trade and investment interests in the region.

Second, the EU considers China a threat to the EU’s economic health and competitiveness, and to the global economy. The Commission’s 2016 Joint Communication noted that China’s adjustment towards a lower growth rate may generate 'short-term volatility and risks'. It also stressed that China’s rising economic power 'increases the risk for the global economy'.

Third, the EU sees China as a threat to its core political values, including human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. The EU’s position over China’s human rights and democratic conditions is not new. But in recent years it has amplified its concerns that China’s authoritarian governance model increasingly threatens liberal democratic values. The EU has issued numerous Human Rights Council statements on Xinjiang, and considers Beijing’s adoption of National Security Law a 'severe blow' to democracy in Hong Kong. The EU has also expressed its belief that the pandemic was 'politicised to the advantage of international actors with a different agenda to ours. This is the case of China'.

Finally, the EU recently labelled China a security concern because of its growing influence in the digital domain. A 2019 European Parliament press release refers to China explicitly as an 'IT threat' to the EU. The EU also worries that China’s foreign investment in strategic sectors, and its acquisition of critical assets, especially 5G networks, 'can pose risks to the EU’s security'.

Divergent views among EU member states

Despite Brussels’ clear attempt to securitise China, the EU’s member states hold rather divergent views on whether China constitutes a threat, and if so, in what sectors. On Asian regional security issues, for example, France and Germany want to adopt an assertive approach. Both countries have urged China to uphold international law in the South China Sea disputes. Hungary and Greece, on the other hand, remain unwilling to criticise Beijing.

EU member states hold divergent views on whether China constitutes a threat, and if so, in what sectors

Similarly, in the IT and cybersecurity domain, a group of members in the European Parliament has identified Chinese 5G vendors Huawei and ZTE as 'high risk' companies. Member states, meanwhile, remain divided on the issue. So, for example, the Spanish government has attempted to avoid imposing an explicit ban on Huawei in its new 5G Cybersecurity Act. Numerous central and eastern European countries, however, have tended to align with the US in banning Huawei from future 5G networks.

As long as there is broad divergence among EU member states on whether to perceive China as a threat, implementing EU measures and policies at national levels in this area is significantly constrained. And that does nothing for the EU’s image with China.

This blog piece is based on the authors' recent article in Asia Europe Journal, Analysing the EU’s collective securitisation moves towards China

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Xuechen Chen Xuechen Chen Assistant Professor in Politics and International Relations, New College of the Humanities at Northeastern University More by this author
photograph of Xinchuchu Gao Xinchuchu Gao Fellow in European Political Economy, London School of Economics More by this author

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