Europe still lacks a coherent China strategy
Thomas O. Falk


Editor's note: Thomas O. Falk is a London-based political analyst and commentator. He holds a Master of Arts in international relations from the University of Birmingham and specializes in U.S. affairs. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

For the first time in more than thirty years, the European Union agreed on imposing sanctions on China the previous Monday. The latter displays that Brussels still lacks a vision on how to deal with China in its new capacity as a global power. Moreover, Europe's approach might set a cycle in motion that is counterproductive for the continent's economic interest – all while Washington continues to lobby against Beijing.

Brussels's sanctions are its effort of establishing a stance against what it considers human rights violations against the Muslim minority in China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region on the one hand and the attempt to appease Washington on the other.

That these sanctions of entry bans and the freezing of assets against four Chinese government members and one institution are not only questionable but will not affect China whatsoever, further displaying a lack of strategy in dealing with China. All it has achieved is triggering sanctions on the Chinese side against the European Union and the potential for significant economic damage should the disputes widen, as in the trade war between Beijing and Washington.

One could have hoped that Brussels had learned from years of ill-advised and inconsequential sanctions against Russia.

It did not.

A coherent China strategy is becoming more and more important. This is not a groundbreaking conclusion. China's return to world power has been forecasted since the early 2000s – or for over 200 years if one had listened to Napoleon Bonaparte's assessment of China being a "sleeping giant."

The latter notwithstanding, Europe appears utterly unprepared for an age in which it will have to assert itself between the two remaining superpowers, China and the U.S.

Europe slid almost naively into this new, bipolar world. For too long, it seemed to have believed that, similar to the Soviet Union after the Cold War, the Western value system could merely be transferred onto China and thus solve all differences.

A colossal fallacy.

China's chief diplomat Yang Jiechi emphasized his country's confidence in its own strength during the Alaska meeting last week, when he said that China's system was at least on par with that of the West.

While China has become self-aware of the power of its economic growth, its technological and militarily advancements it has generated, the EU, on the other hand, appears to have gotten lost in the yesterday of geopolitics, in which Brussels still does not seem inclined to take ownership of its own destiny but instead relies on Washington on guidance.

It is a slippery slope.

Joe Biden has already made it clear that he will always criticize China wherever he thinks it is necessary. Moreover, Blinken emphasized at a NATO meeting in Brussels on Tuesday that the U.S. seeks for Europe to adopt a more uncompromising policy towards China in the future.

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke during a televised White House press conference. /VCG

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke during a televised White House press conference. /VCG

The latter also means that Washington will not much longer be satisfied with symbolic acts such as the aforementioned travel restrictions. After all, Washington has been pursuing a very aggressive China policy, including punitive tariffs, technology embargoes and sanctions against Chinese individuals.

Washington's approach – and its demands – makes it increasingly difficult for Europe to manoeuvre, particularly if the future modus operandi ends up being in accord with the U.S. and its very own China approach.

Brussels has already offered Washington a plan for a joint China strategy. However, all that was offered is a transatlantic trade and technology council. The crux here lies, of course, in the fact that the 27 member states, in general, represent 27 different opinions. It's no difference when it comes to China and where and how one seems inclined to cooperate with Beijing.  

Nonetheless, a common strategy with the U.S. could lead Brussels to a path onto geopolitical insignificance. For the EU to establish itself as the globe's third quantity in this new world next to the U.S. and China, as it so often proclaims, one must expect Brussels to emancipate itself from Washington on the one hand and not allow itself to be drawn into a conflict between the two superpowers which seems primarily driven by the U.S. desire to cling on to its hegemony, and on the other hand that a coherent strategy for China can finally be defined among the 27 member states.

It is pivotal for Europe to finally establish a profitable, independent partnership with China and realize that sanctions are detrimental to this goal.

Seeking to transfer European moral concepts onto China via the latter cannot be the ultima ratio.

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