Analyst: Europe Should Rethink China Policy After Party Congress, Ukraine Stance

China has emerged as an even more prominent player in world affairs as a result of the crisis in Ukraine and the weakening of Russia, but not necessarily to its advantage, says a Warsaw-based analyst.

The two major events that have “shaped or reshaped Europe’s attitude towards China” are the war in Ukraine and how China reacted to it, and the 20th Chinese communist party congress and its outcome, Ireneusz Bil, chairman of the Warsaw-based Amicus Europae Foundation, said in a phone interview with VOA. The foundation was established by former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski.

If attitudes toward Beijing were hardened due to its stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the latest policy pronouncements and the lineup of the new leadership at the Chinese party congress lends the EU an additional reason to recalibrate its former largely welcoming approach, Bil said.

Under these circumstances, China’s expanded role in international affairs and in a potentially enlarged footprint in Europe, including in Central and Eastern Europe, will be accompanied with increased scrutiny and greater “vigilance,” according to the analyst.

Europe will be more aware of the consequences of the technological exchanges and investments from China than it was before, more vigilant in the screening process, Bil said, compared with the previous experience when “there was no second thought on Chinese investment into the EU.”

Now, people will look at “who’s behind [Chinese investments], what kind of technology they will have access to, what kind of infrastructure they will have access to, what security risks are behind it,” Bil said.

Given these developments, the German government’s recent decision to send a chancellor-led delegation to Beijing and to allow a Chinese state-owned company stakes in the port of Hamburg is viewed with strong reservation in Poland and most other Central and Eastern European countries, Bil told VOA.

Bil described Berlin’s choice as “a unilateral decision to go so quickly after the 20th party congress” that “could be seen as lending support to rising authoritarianism in China.”

“This is not welcomed in Poland, and I think in a majority of EU — as I said, here Germany is seen as under-performing versus Russia, so now their effort to build some kind of new relationship with China is being seen as not in the interest of the whole of the European Union,” he said.

Bil added that whether this action is in the interest of Germany itself is also questionable, judging from the opposition put forth by Germany’s security agencies, among other groups.

Germany and France — bigger countries in the EU — “have overlooked our [most Central and Eastern European countries] interest and our opinions vis-a-vis Russia, you can imagine that we are now seeing a ‘mirror effect’ in their relations with China,” he said. “This has led to a crisis of trust, towards Germany — and their understanding of the change of [the] geostrategic map.”

At the center of Germany and the EU’s relations with China is to what extent each country, and the EU as a whole, rely on China for its economic well-being. At this week’s policy roundtable organized by the European Parliament’s Research Service in Brussels, two analysts say that dependency is “overblown.”

Jacob Kirkegaard is senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund (GMF) in Brussels and nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) in Washington, D.C. He noted at the event held Thursday that the Ukraine crisis has led European nations to look carefully at potential consequences of a fallout with China, in the event Beijing takes similar actions against Taiwan, as Russia did against Ukraine.

“China is a bigger economy, so sanctioning China following a military invasion of Taiwan is going to be a bigger deal than sanctioning Russia, no doubt about that,” Kirkegaard said.

Although undoubtedly there’s going to be a very large contingent of “European industrial interests who will cry that it’s going to be a disaster,” the reality is, he said, “as we have seen during the pandemic, as we have seen now with the gas dependency on Russia,” the global supply chain possesses much more flexibility, “and the actual true long-term dependencies on China will turn out to be a lot lower than we think,” Kirkegaard said.

Ulrich Jochheim, a policy analyst in the external policies unit of the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) who earlier worked as an economic desk officer for Germany and China in the European Commission, agrees.

“Our [German] export to China makes up less than 10%,” relatively insignificant compared to “a figure of 30% — more or less — for Australia, and 42% in the case of Taiwan,” he pointed out at Thursday policy roundtable.

Earlier this month, the EU identified China as a “tough competitor” at its foreign ministers meeting, known as the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC).

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky described the gathering as providing a platform for “very good and very consensual internal deliberation among EU foreign ministers” about the EU-China relations.

“There is no formal or agreed public outcome of this debate and we do not comment on details of internal debates,” he wrote, in response to VOA’s request for comment. “As customary, the High Representative Josep Borrell as the chairman commented publicly after the meeting and he indeed spoke about ‘a tough competitor, tougher and tougher, and a systemic rival.'”

Lipavsky continued: “I only have one thing to add — there is a cleared-eyed assessment of China and the recognition that the EU is having the biggest leverage, when acting in unity both internally and externally with like-minded partners. As for Czechia, we appreciated the debate, and we will support continuation of it.”

The Czech Republic currently holds the EU presidency.

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