The EU's elusive China policy

Opinion piece (El Pais)
Camino Mortera-Martinez
21 April 2023

Much like the European Union, I never thought I was going to have to think so much about China. This is, until a few years ago, when a wise man gave me some precious advice. 'Don´t pretend to be a China expert. You are not, and don´t need to be' he said. 'But make sure you become a China expert in everything that has to do with your research field. Because China will be everywhere'. Ever since, I worry about Beijing's impact on niche things like EU migration policies, European integration and democratic backsliding; more evident areas like AI and cybersecurity; and, more recently, everyone's latest favourite obsession: what is the EU's China policy?

The answer is simple: there is not one. Yet. Much more knowledgeable people than me, like Noah Barkin and Ian Bond, have written extensively about why Europe needs a China strategy and what such plan should look like. This is not a piece about China. (Because, remember, I am not a China expert). This is a piece about the EU. (Because, remember, China will be everywhere).  

Much like the European Union, I am both a China hawk and a China dove. 

I fret over Xi's increasingly authoritarian antics and believe the Chinese Communist Party does not play by our rules. I have, for long, thought that Europe was naïve about China's intentions. In 2019, I wrote a piece where I said that China will be one of the EU's biggest security challenges in the coming years. I also said that neither the EU nor its member-states would be able to sit on the fence on China for long. I do not think China should be mediating between Russia and Ukraine because Beijing has already picked a side and it is not ours. 

I am, by Brussels standards, a China hawk.

And yet, I understand where Macron, Michel, Sánchez and Scholz are coming from. I think one cannot ask Europe to have a coherent China policy without understanding the context where this is all happening. I think something broke irremediably between Washington and Brussels in November 2016 and it has not been fixed yet. I see what Trump's tariffs and trade wars and Biden's Afghanistan debacle and IRA mean to countries on this side of the Atlantic. 

This makes me a China dove in Washington, London and Warsaw.  

A few years ago, I realised that I could not be neutral on either Russia or China. Many on the Continent disagreed with me. For the longest time, there was no need for European leaders to not be neutral. The fact that the EU and its member-states now need to take a strong stance on China does not mean that they want to. Many do not even think they should. Herein lies the biggest misunderstandings of them all. 

The EU was born on a simple premise: the more we trade, the more we get entangled by boring rules and standards, the more difficult it will be for us to go to war. From Schuman's 'solidarité des faits', to Monnet's method of European integration, to Germany's 'Wandel durch Handel', the Union has applied that logic both to itself and to the world. Putin's brutal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 showed the limits to Europe's integration theory. But the idea has been there for far too long to simply disappear from one day to the next.

The US, on the other hand, was born out of the need to defend itself against an Empire. It has always seen the world in more conflictual terms than Europe has. It is suspicious of super-powers that do not share its values. And it has rarely shied away from military conflict when it thought it necessary. Washington begun its 'pivot to Asia' (and away from Europe) much earlier than many in Continental Europe realised. America has been watching China closely for almost two decades now. Trump may have been louder and clumsier than both his predecessors and Biden, but, unlike some of his other policies, his obsession with the Chinese Dragon did not come out of nowhere. 

The world is, today, possibly closer to America's understanding of it than to Europe's. There are a lot of mean people in it that do not believe in a rules based international order. Some of these people are ready to do very nasty things. Some of them are happy to do them together: three weeks before the war, Xi and Putin declared that their friendship had 'no limits'. While Xi has been more ambivalent to Putin's war efforts than his Russian counter-part would have liked, he made sure that the world knew that he still considers him a 'dear friend' in a state visit to Moscow in March this year. 

All this does not make it any easier for the EU to accept the new reality. Some European leaders still think that China could be an honest broker between Moscow and Kyiv. A few believe that the US is sleepwalking into an unnecessary conflict in Taiwan. Many reckon that the EU should try to find its own voice in the world and avoid picking sides. They are wrong on most of the accounts, but not for the reasons you think. They are not 'stupid' or 'anti-American' or 'trying to go back to a world where gas was cheap and all was well', as Macron, Borrell, Sánchez, Michel and Scholz have all been accused of. They are simply doing what they think they should do: do their best to preserve a world where everyone gets more or less along.

This is not because EU leaders are nicer than those in Washington, Canberra or London. It is because they understand the intrinsic nature of the project they inhabit. The EU is not a nation-state. It is a collection of countries whose main raison d’être has long been to craft rules and enable trade and migration with the ultimate aspiration of becoming something akin to a political union. It is an imperfect place, with too many cooks, complex structures and frustratingly long debates to seek consensus. It sometimes does ridiculous things. It takes forever for the Union to find a common position. But, once it does, it rarely backtracks (the single market, the euro, the Schengen area or the Union´s response to Brexit and the war in Ukraine are just some examples).

The EU will eventually find its elusive China policy. It may not be easy, it may not even happen soon. But, ultimately, the EU is the most successful peace project in History. It must have done something right.

Camino Mortera-Martinez is head of the Brussels office at the Centre for European Reform.