Amid the turbulent international landscape, China and Europe must reinforce trust


Global Europe

Picture of Dharmendra Kanani
Dharmendra Kanani

Chief Operating Officer and Chief Spokesperson of Friends of Europe

Picture of Mar Casas Cachinero
Mar Casas Cachinero

Programme Executive at Friends of Europe

Ahead of the planned EU-China Summit to be held virtually this Friday on 1 April, China must decide how it wants to be perceived in Europe – not only in the face of current crises, but also in the years and decades to come.

Expectations on the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, on the one side, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, on the other, are high; tensions between the two powers are higher still. This does not preclude, however, that there might be room for cooperation and mutual trust to emerge.

The world has been in a state of permanent crisis for the last two years, in which pre-existing polarisation has only been exacerbated. COVID-19 created shock and tested globalisation. The pandemic made governments move and manage their mandates to protect their populations, accelerated medical science technologies that gave rise to vaccines at exponential speed whilst lending insights on how to tackle other diseases and ill-health, and led to countries sharing science and collaborating on a level hitherto unknown – particularly within the EU, where member states agreed to one of the largest recovery funds in the world. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a crisis of security, international peacekeeping and the rules of democracy. This conflict and the pandemic are crises of a different nature, and they will have different consequences with regards to how China and its actions are perceived.

The current invasion of Ukraine has the potential to set back EU-China relations for decades

During the pandemic, and despite being blamed for the virus during Trump’s tenure in the United States, China shared medical data and found ways to support the global supply of masks and tests. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has clearly resulted in a very different response from China, which now appears ambivalent on its commitment to multilateralism. It is perceived as keeping an eye on its own geopolitical interest and allegiances – hoping that either NATO will falter or that global support for Ukraine will ebb as the harsh economic realities of the fuel crisis and supply of other essentials hit the pockets of citizens.

In international relations, perceptions shape behaviours just like behaviours shape perceptions. Actors will often assume perceived behaviour as actual behaviour. China has made a clear effort in the last few years to be seen as a responsible global player that is able to lead in several fields, such as biodiversity protection, climate action, connectivity or global health. Should China now decide to ‘wait it out’ or act in ways deemed to be supporting illiberalism and crimes of war, previous efforts to demonstrate this clear capacity for leadership will be wasted, leading to a very angular set of global relations. As seen from Europe, China has remained indifferent to Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and, thereby, has passively aligned itself with its partner in the conflict – even if, in material terms, that might not be the case.

China is, today, a deeply embedded globalised actor. Chinese firms hold vested interests across Europe and the world at large; Western sanctions imposed on Russia might eventually hit these firms’ interests as well. Strong trade dependencies and the desire for a stable and predictable global order unite China and Europe. Both Chinese and European people have benefited from their trade links, and they also endured much suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. The current invasion of Ukraine has the potential to set back EU-China relations for decades.

China’s silence is and will be viewed as complicity

In times of uncertainty and (mis)perceptions, how can trust between Europe and China be reinforced? China must consider its long-term strategic objectives and make a clear decision of how it wants to act and how it wants to be perceived – in Europe and elsewhere. The EU has long signalled the importance of its relationship with China by making the country one of its ‘strategic partners’. The Union of 27 member states will need to remember that prioritising open diplomatic efforts with China to find common ground has proven beneficial thus far. Global peace and stability require both parties to remember the bad times as well as the good. Both actors have a responsibility to reduce tensions and to remember that with peace comes prosperity – especially at a time when the pandemic has weakened economies fundamentally. Interdependency and mutuality – or lack of – will underscore how economies will weather the storm of this current security crisis and those to come. The fast-paced impacts of climate change and technological development are waiting in the wings, lest we forget.

Much unpredictability surrounds the invasion of Ukraine, including what China and India will do. Depending on the excesses of Russia, the stakes are high for some of the largest global economies that have an economic stake in Europe, the West and Africa. China’s silence is and will be viewed as complicity. Following news that further sanctions to Russia might hit China, recent exchanges between the EU and China have led to the customary exchange of warnings, with China expressing the need to be sober-minded.

Given the plethora of variables, the Russian invasion of Ukraine might eventually prove to inflict a stronger blow upon the current international order than the COVID-19 pandemic ever did. Amid this critical moment that will determine the direction of the 21st century globally, the EU-China Summit will be crucial in proving right – or wrong – the perceptions both actors hold of each other, and in establishing the direction and intensity of their cooperation for the years to come. The current turbulence should not distract us from the fact that the Summit should be as much about trade relations as it will be about peacemaking in Ukraine.

An edited version of this article was first published in China Daily on 28 March 2022.

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