For decades, the EU’s relationship with China has been fairly stable and beneficial, calling the state a strategic partner to the EU. In the past few years however, the rhetoric and policies have evolved to identify China as a systemic rival, causing the dynamic of the EU and its allies to shift towards a New Cold War with China. Since 2019 the EU has taken a firmer stance toward China due to various concerns including human rights abuses particularly in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and unbalanced business reciprocity.Another significant factor to acknowledge in this dynamic is U.S.-China relations which were at a historic low after the election of President Trump who launched a consequential trade conflict. Biden’s new administration has not significantly altered its policy toward China, but it is now working to recruit the EU to follow in this hardline approach as the U.S. attempts to rebuild its transatlantic partnership. However, following the U.S. stance risks exacerbating issues, such as creating a dichotomy which could push China closer to other autocratic states, including Russia. As a result, the topic of this new cold war has beome increasingly relavent, as well as how the EU should approach this possibility and the threats that follow it. While it is necessary to stand for the values of democracy, it is also important to remember China is a major global player, and for the benefit of all states, collaboration on certain topics remains crucial. Simultaneously, collaboration should not mean unrestricted cooperation in all areas. Overall, similarities with the Cold War should not entail an identical approach to the Chinese case, and the EU must work to form a united, pragmatic, response.
With China’s growing influence and economic might, the threat posed to the established liberal international order is also increasing. After decades of relatively stable cooperation, tensions are starting to rise. While the United States has starkly shifted its position towards China, the European Union is left in a difficult spot, resulting in internal as well as external disputes. Meanwhile, Beijing is consistently unwilling to accept criticism, rejecting and condemning any comments on its actions. China often uses its history as a basis for this approach and for its overall attitude in matters relating to foreign policy. As a result, important disagreements, particularly those which are value-related, make China increasingly difficult to work with in several ways. Escalations, first with the US and now with the EU, indicate the coming of a ‘new cold war’. Assessing the accuracy of this label by comparing the current situation with the Cold War can give us a more objective perception of the threat from China. This in turn helps figure out why and how the EU can prevent a new cold war.
The history of diplomatic relations between the EU and China goes back to 1975. The EU was only a fraction of its current size and China was just beginning to introduce economic reforms that would open it up to the rest of the world. The EU, along with other democratic states, hoped further interconnection and engagement would move the country to adopt more democratic values, both in its politics and through economic reforms. Since then, cooperation with China has only deepened, and the EU has created significant interconnections with it.
In 2003, the EU labelled China a ‘strategic partner’. This title characterised the thus-far unfulfilled potential in the relationship. The label represented an opportunity to build an equal and mutually beneficial partnership on multiple fronts. China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao outlined the ‘strategic’ aspect of the partnership, describing cooperation that ‘should be long-term and stable, bearing on the larger picture of China–EU relations. It transcends the differences in ideology and social system and is not subjected to the impacts of individual events that occur from time to time.’ This definition emphasised the yearning for a solid and secure relationship. Both the EU and China recognised they had much to gain in the long term from a relationship of this nature. Since the 2000s, this has largely been achieved. The partnership, particularly in trade and business, has expanded at an exponential rate. It has also been relatively stable, in spite of the ongoing concerns.
Despite their deepening interconnectedness, the EU’s has in recent years taken a tougher approach towards China. In March 2019, it released a document titled ‘EU-China – A Strategic Outlook’ which sharply shifted its label for China from ‘strategic partner’ to ‘systemic rival’. The term ‘systemic rival’ evokes a sense of challenge and competition rather than of cooperation and mutual gain. Although a more realist overall approach to the relationship, this signifies a loss of hope that China will eventually become more democratic and open. This discouragement, underpinned by the grievances with China, continue to increase. The rate at which China is expanding in power and influence means the EU has determined that key issues with China can no longer be sidelined. Similarly, a 2021 G7 communiqué for the first time emphasised a multitude of concerns regarding China. The group did not shy away from pressing China on crucial issues from human rights abuses, to Indo-Pacific ocean security, to questions regarding the origins of COVID-19. The nature of this communique is another indicator of the shift in the international community’s attitude towards China.
One of the EU’s most significant concerns is related to the ongoing and intensifying human rights abuses occurring across China and throughout its autonomous regions. Unlike business reciprocity, democracy and the rule of law are core values of the EU. According to a report by the Human Rights Watch, Muslims in Xinjiang are being subjected to a Chinese campaign to ‘sinicize’ them, forced into labour camps and brutal assimilation programmes. Buddhists in Tibet are also being subjected to a similar campaign. Although Chinese officials deny these human rights abuses, they are attempting, through inhumane measures, to erase ethnic and religious minority groups from Chinese territory. This goal has been gaining traction in recent years. With these efforts, coupled with intense surveillance networks across these regions, the Chinese government is evidently seeking to create a more uniform and readily conformative populace. Conformity as the norm generates a state that is easier to control and reduces the threat of dissent against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). These concerns have led the EU, along with Canada, the US, and the UK, to implement sanctions on Xinjiang officials – the first sanctions the EU has placed on China in three decades.
Beyond this, there are overarching concerns about the human rights situation across the country. Activists and journalists are consistently targeted, and the pandemic has only exacerbated anxieties about Chinese officials abusing surveillance technologies. Finally, in Hong Kong, Beijing is attempting to erase pro-democracy movements and political opposition after implementing a national security law that grants the government sweeping power to stop dissent. In general, President Xi Jinping has shown great interest in any opportunity to consolidate power and secure control. These actions run counter to the shared values that the EU is meant to promote internationally. As a result, there is debate on the way forward with China.
Even in the economic realm, which has seen the most cooperation between the EU and China, there are lingering challenges that result in tensions. The two states are enormous trading partners and make up a significant portion of the world economy, with trade between them averaging over a billion euros a day. Still, despite the benefits to the EU, the trade and investment relationships remain unbalanced. Since the financial crises of 2008, in particular, various forms of investment in the EU from China have been increasing rapidly. Two-thirds of these investments are from Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOE). These firms however have unfair advantages both in China and in Europe. The SOEs are supported by government subsidies, giving them an edge over typical private enterprises, and monopolistic Chinese firms can distort the EU’s single market. Meanwhile, companies from the EU and other foreign countries do not have the same degree of free access to Chinese markets. EU and foreign firms are instead met with walls of regulations and entry into whole sectors is denied. This hurts EU companies, both domestically and in China.
To counteract this, the rivals have spent seven years negotiating a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). The agreement promises greater market access for EU firms in China, including to sectors that have been largely shut off to foreign players. The CAI also generally reduces unfair regulations and limitations in order to make it fairer and more predictable to do business. In addition, certain Member States (MS), in particular France, emphasised the need for a sustainable development section. Accordingly, a vague but legally binding promise for China to one day ratify the International Labour Organization’s Convention on Forced Labour was added. However, it did not specify a timeline. Furthermore, the CAI has yet to be ratified. Recent events have raised questions on when this might occur. Beijing retaliated to the sanctions by the EU and its allies on Xinjiang officials by imposing similar sanctions, but on a larger scale, on EU officials, institutions, and even academics. Thereafter, members of the European Parliament, some of whom were included in the sanctions, moved to freeze progress toward ratification of the CAI.
While EU–China relations were degrading, those between the US and China have deteriorated to a far greater degree. Like the EU, the US has for the past few decades enjoyed deepening economic ties and cooperation with China. However, there has always been a sense of competition between the two countries, which act as rivals both economically and in terms of influence. The US continues to grasp at maintaining its global dominance, but it has faltered remarkably in certain regions. The Middle East in particular represents a sore point, marked by chaotic military missions and unachieved goals in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and more. Just one signifier of the potential decline in US hegemony is that it has long been clear that it fears China’s rapid growth because of what it could mean for the global order. If the US is flagging in its role, this allows room for China to step in and take its place.
When President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, he was fully prepared to act on these concerns to ensure US dominance on the world stage. As a result, he put up trade barriers and an onslaught of tariffs on Chinese goods. Citing unfair Chinese business practices as the reason and encouraging US citizens to buy more American-made products, Trump made it clear that his attitude to China was one of staunch competition. This competition grew not only from business concerns but security ones. A particular source of contention is the South China Sea, where the US accuses China of going against the rules-based international order. China lays claim to the area and its many islands. However, multiple surrounding countries who also assert ownership of portions of the territory have contested the Chinese claims. The area is also being increasingly militarised, undergoing extensive construction by the Chinese military. As the most significant influence in the region, the US sees this as a potential threat to stability and the considerable volume of global trade that passes through its waters. President Joe Biden has not greatly changed this stance. However, he has rejected Trump’s unilateral, ‘America First’ approach to leadership. Instead, he seeks to unite allies against China’s influence. As a result, the EU is being called on to join the US in taking a hard line, which could have major, long-term consequences. This is a cause for concern, considering the recent four-year period of Donald Trumps Presidency where the US acted less like a trustworthy ally and more like a wildcard in the international community.
This outlines the pressure that the EU has been facing in recent years, stuck between a systemic rival to the east and a sometimes unreliable ally to the West. In addition, it seems that the US and the EU are not entirely aligned regarding their interests in and threat perception from China. To some degree, Washington has always appeared concerned, even threatened, by China’s rise. Meanwhile, the EU seems to accept it as a normal evolution in the multipolar world, and only feels threatened if China behaves aggressively. Similarly, the US has much to lose in the region. Currently, it acts as the dominant power in East Asia, supported by multiple sizable military bases. The EU, while recognising the importance of stability in the region, does not share the same interest in maintaining these roles, and is also currently pursuing strategic autonomy. As a result, the EU is left to identify the true threats to the Union are and overall stability, while resisting being drawn into unnecessary power plays.
Not only is the China question causing rifts between allies, it is also causing disagreements within the EU, exposing its weaknesses. Since 2012, Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries have had close links with China. They joined the 16+1 mechanism (later 17+1 after the addition of Greece), which promised increased investments, particularly in infrastructure, and the potential to revitalise economies. While this initially improved relations, over time the CEE states found themselves consistently let down by empty promises. Many of the countries became increasingly critical of China, and Lithuania even withdrew. Now, some countries, such as Poland, have expressed discontent with the way the large MS France and Germany are determining foreign policy on China. An example of this was the summit Germany and France had with China in July 2021 to discuss future cooperation excluding fellow MS from the narrative. Similarly, two states, which are the strongest proponents of the CAI, are also the ones that stand to benefit the most from it economically. France and Germany also facilitated the finalizing of CAI negotiations. This was done to the dismay of other MS, who critiqued the deal’s lack of geopolitical ambition.
Of course, France and Germany are far from completely supportive of Beijing’s policymakers. However, Hungary’s self-declared ‘illiberal’ leader Viktor Orban and President Xi Jinping do have an especially friendly relationship. They appear congenial both in their interpersonal interactions and in terms of doing business, allowing for amicable politics. Hungary has repeatedly vetoed EU statements calling for the protection of human rights in China. Its most recent such veto was concerning China’s actions in Hong Kong. This caused an outcry in the EU, particularly from Germany. Do these divisions exemplify Beijing’s plans to divide and conquer the Western world? Some would argue it does. Nonetheless, rather than overplaying the Chinese threat, it is more beneficial to look inwards and analyse how China simply exploited certain vulnerable points of access to the EU. As a result, there is a chance for the EU to step back and recognise the need to present a united front.
Having outlined the varying perceptions of China from the US and EU MS, to subsequently understand China’s perceptions of Western powers, and its approach to foreign policy in general, it is necessary to grasp the implications of the ‘century of humiliation’. The century of humiliation refers to a period of slightly over 100 years in China’s history that was marked by foreign occupation and war – ending in 1949, when the CCP emerged victorious and took back control of the country, or at least most of it. Although that era may have ended, China still aims to eventually reclaim all the territory it believes to have once belonged to it. This includes, but is not limited to, Taiwan and the South China Sea. The CCP’s 1949 victory is an enormous source of legitimacy for the party. It boasts as the party which managed to overcome that era of adversity, and build China into a strong and prosperous state. This narrative shapes the way in which China behaves with the world. It believes it must be strong in dealing with the West, so foreign states may never again lead it astray.
This victimisation narrative explains much of the state’s foreign policy. China claims to be a nation that strives for peaceful coexistence and puts the utmost emphasis on the importance of sovereignty and non-interference. As such, whenever Western states comment on anything China considers to be its domestic affairs, it is able to simply call for non-interference. Non-interference is an ideal that the Chinese government claims to firmly follow. This is precisely why China responded disproportionately to the sanctions on Xinjiang officials. Continued ‘interference’ regarding issues such as human rights, and the South China Sea, drives the CCP to paint the EU and its allies as being aggressive and overstepping their limits. At the same time, Beijing has adopted business and soft power as its primary tools to increase its influence and attractiveness internationally. However, it takes these actions without admitting any outright attempt to influence sovereign nations.
The Cold War comparison
From the first sign of growing tensions, the term ‘new cold war’ has been almost unhesitatingly used. It is undeniable that relations have taken a plunge and that China is a growing power. This naturally creates concerns for current dominant world powers. But how appropriate is this comparison, really?
The most obvious similarity is the conflict of value systems between China and much of the Western world. While the degree to which China is truly a communist state is arguable, it nonetheless rejects the democratic model of governance that is so integral to the EU and its allies. Instead, as a result of declared Chinese exceptionalism, the CCP has created socialism with Chinese characteristics. The system is unique to the country and its people, emphasising its differences with the Western world through a sense of nationalistic superiority. China has similarly dismissed the idea that there is a set of universal values. It has consequently rejected the values that are at the forefront of many multilateral institutions today. Overall, China’s official partiality to socialism, no matter how tailored, along with its adoption of a strong central government, does create an obvious parallel to the Soviet Union.
The second main area of comparison is related to the idea of power and who is leading the world order. After World War II, the West grew increasingly concerned by the Soviet Union. It was worried that the communist power was pushing its influence onto its neighbours and planning to act similarly around the world. Western interventionism, and a military build-up that led to a security dilemma, frustrated the communist power. This led to the Cold War, a conflict defined by a zero-sum mentality for decades. This history has clear parallels with the current rivalry. The West, in particular the US, is undoubtedly concerned by China’s growing influence globally, particularly in relation to what this means for the future world order. Chinas current international drive to invest in critical infrastructure such as roads and ports is a physical manifestation of Beijing’s influence that so concerns Western powers. In addition, foreign interventionism is a sore spot for China due to its history and the pride it takes in non-interference. Interventionism in turn consistently causes firm pushback.
However, the current situation is different from the Cold War in many significant ways. Perhaps most importantly, the West – including both the EU and the US – is deeply interconnected with China, far more than with the Soviet Union at any point during the Cold War. Globalisation has resulted in entrenched economies, and China is no exception. Multilateral organisations and agreements have led to the realisation of the liberal international relations prophecy of inevitable cooperation. While it is possible to go against this, as Trump attempted to do, that would not be without significant consequences for everyone involved. True decoupling with China at this point in the process of modernisation is not only certain to be harmful, it is simply unrealistic.
Another significant difference is related to the parties’ goals in the international community, at least officially. The Soviet Union made no attempt to conceal the fact that expansion was at the forefront of the agenda. Spreading communism to all corners of the world was its ultimate objective. This also meant providing assistance to socialist states globally. In this regard, there is some similarity with China’s behaviour, considering one of Beijing’s greatest tools for influence is providing economic assistance through investment. Still, whether or not China is attempting to influence nations and take the place of the US on the world stage, this is not being done through the spread of an ideology. In fact, China prides itself on its unique system of socialism with Chinese characteristics. It is not meant to be universally applicable – that would take away its Chinese particularity. Instead, China’s expansionist efforts are less outright, driven by physical economic projects rather than pushing values and ideas.
Chinese initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), or even the 17+1 plan, certainly can be seen as attempts to expand. At the very least, they could be ventures to create ‘blocs’ of influence. Still in reality, their connections, however strategic, are weak. The partnerships themselves are built on the frail foundation of economic coercion, not deep-set value systems or ideological beliefs. In the event of a new cold war breaking out, how firmly would these states stand by China? During the Cold War, the Soviet Union took advantage of power vacuums in its neighbourhood, exploiting economically burdened and weak states. Today, many of China’s neighbours, most of which are US allies, are relatively stable. They also benefit from the global economy, even if they have taken a hit because of the pandemic. This is not to say China is not taking advantage of this contrast. Stable countries increase the strategic payoff of Chinese investments. However, in this comparison, it is crucial to underline the different contexts for the rise of the Soviet Union and the rise of China. The Cold War developed after WWII, a time of economic recession following a global conflict. Despite present hardships, which should not be understated, the world is still in a much different place. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has only underlined the importance of global cooperation.
Any suggestion of a new cold war with China would require a distinct conceptual framework. Expansionism would be perceived not from an ideological standpoint but primarily an economic one. This is the main source of China’s influence and its most powerful tool for political coercion. Particularly in the long term, Beijing’s hold on critical infrastructure in developing nations could evolve into an increasingly significant threat. With these concerns in mind, pursuing similar strategies towards China as were implemented towards the Soviet Union could lead to intensified conflict and a new cold war. Therefore, as China poses certain threats and challenges, handling these threats requires a unique approach. Attitudes and strategies duplicated from the Cold War would ensure a treacherous outcome.
Preventing a new cold war: why and how
This leads to an important question. China may be a significantly different threat than the Soviet Union once was, but it is still a declared rival of the EU and a perceived threat to the Union’s greatest ally, the US. It actively works against the values that are most integral to democratic states, and arguably acts to undermine democracy and the liberal international order as a whole. So why should the EU prevent a new cold war? And what should its role be in handling the growing rivalry with China?
To start, China and the West are, as previously mentioned, interconnected. Overall, there is no undoing this. Damaging core economic links would be detrimental to the world economy as a whole. Beyond this, it is also important to remember that China is a military and nuclear power as well as an economic one. Overstating the Chinese threat could itself push China down the road to behaving more like one. Creating a security dilemma would signal that we have learned nothing from the lessons of the Cold War. This would also give China a common enemy with other rivals of the EU and US. Russia is a prime example. So far, the two countries have not been more than partners who appear to share common goals. Among these goals is dividing Europe. Driving China away could push into the arms of fellow authoritarian leaders and facilitate the creation of those quintessential Cold War ‘blocs’, even without spreading an ideology. At the same time, without being able to rely on the EU and US for economic growth, Beijing may become even more aggressive. Areas like the South China Sea and Taiwan could fall victim to the CCP’s need to project strength in order to maintain legitimacy.
Finally, it would be an error to say that the West’s engagement with China in hopes of driving meaningful reform has failed. Although it has not yet materialised as a significant change in China’s governance or proclaimed values, that does not mean it has not touched the people. Civil society is still growing in the country. If not, Beijing would not have had to work so hard to suppress it and maximise control. This is true not just with regard to Hong Kong, but across China, where activists of all kinds are fighting in the face of persecution. The government has long been targeting human rights activists, regularly arresting and jailing them for ‘subversion’. Often they are sentenced to many years in prison without being granted proper legal representation of their choice. Other activists of various kinds have faced similar fates. Whether pushing for democracy, women’s rights, labour laws, etc. they are systematically censored, targeted and often imprisoned. Sometimes activists are forced to give false confessions, which the government then utilises for propaganda. Giving up on China would mean giving up on these tenacious advocates of civil society as well.
So how should the EU deal with China? As outlined, China undoubtedly challenges certain EU interests and values. However, escalating the perceptions of China as an existential threat will certainly turn it into a more than sizable enemy, as well as distract from the specific points of concern. Instead, the international community should be realistic- not realist in its approach. A pragmatic attitude, rather than one prioritizing a zero-sum approach, will likely lead to greater stability for now and the future. There are certain areas where engagement with China is absolutely necessary and often beneficial. In some ways, it even creates leverage over China. Most notably, the EU and its allies represent a significant market for China, as well as sources of investment and overall economic growth. Leverage is also what will likely prove helpful in tackling human rights abuses, something the CAI attempted to make small steps towards. There is no reason to lose this and create or expose further weaknesses because of lack of engagement.
At the same time, it would also be unwise to practice unrestrained cooperation on all fronts. For the EU, some sectors are better without Chinese involvement, particularly when it comes to its quest for greater strategic autonomy. What this requires from the EU is something that it currently lacks: a coordinated approach. Internal cohesion on the topic of China is far from solid, and that is all too clear to leaders in Beijing. While there will always be lingering disagreements, the EU needs to at least give the appearance of a united front. It needs to define its goals as well as clear red lines. Only then can it take the reins in the relationship with China, rather than following Beijing’s lead.
As a result, for the EU to handle China effectively, it requires both deliberate engagement and disengagement, depending on the respective threats and benefits. Certain areas which would benefit from engagement are relatively undisputed and ongoing, such as tackling the issue of climate change. Other concerns that may require a more nuanced approach include nuclear non-proliferation, economic partnership, world health, and academic exchanges. However, it would be wise to shield certain sectors from Beijing’s influence. These include 5G, the BRI and general investment initiatives, and media and information.
Countering climate change is one of the most widely agreed-upon areas of necessary cooperation with China. Environmental concerns transcend state lines; therefore they should transcend political disagreements. Supporting China in its efforts to become a greener country is crucial. China is a signatory of the Paris Agreement and has a stated goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2060. This is an important step for the world’s greatest emitter of greenhouse gasses. Yet there is criticism that this is not ambitious enough, and that it fails to meet the Paris Agreements’ goals. Nonetheless, as all states work towards a greener future, they need to both hold each other accountable and support each other. China’s launch of an emissions trading system, similar to the EU’s, is a recent development which the Union supported.
Nuclear non-proliferation is a crucial global security matter. While China is a nuclear power, its official doctrine has always been to minimise build-up, limiting it to the extent necessary for deterrence. China has also given assurances that it will never use its nuclear capabilities first. Worryingly however, new reports assert that China is currently in the midst of a build-up. Photos show the creation of new missile silos, even as Beijing officially denies any such endeavour. Perhaps this is the start of a security dilemma. China could be attempting to catch up with the US as a nuclear power wile tensions rise, simaltaneously keeping a hand in the global race with Russia, India, North Korea, and others. The EU could have a role in preventing this, serving as a bridge in dialogue to assure China that the US and its allies have no intention of utilising nuclear weapons against it. It is necessary for international security that the EU pushes for nuclear non-proliferation abroad as well as at home, while supporting deals to limit nuclear proliferation whenever possible.
In terms of economic cooperation, the EU and China are interdependent. This calls for a realistic approach to any attempt at ‘decoupling’. The pandemic has shown how risky it is to become dependent on China for certain essential goods. Rather than turning to autarky and setting a negative precedent, the EU could adopt the solution of diversifying supply chains. It is important to remember that China is also reliant on the EU for certain goods due to its specialisations, which exist as a result of rejecting autarky. Simultaneously, the EU is Chinas largest export market, as well as an important investor and job creator. This signals that the dependence is not one-way. Overall, collectively assessing strengths and weaknesses will be the best way forward. Again, this should be done realistically to avoid threat overestimations which could subsequently damage business. Collectivity must also be emphasised. The EU should not again allow initiatives such as 17+1 to create opportunities for China to target MS that are most vulnerable to economic coercion. However, when addressing China as a cohesive whole, the EU should remain open to mutually beneficial business. Economic cooperation serves as a deterrent to escalating conflict, and as a possible source of leverage, as it increases China’s reliance on the EU.
On the health front, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the need for better global coordination to detect and contain future global threats. Beijing initially expressed support for reforming the World Health Organization (WHO). The EU was calling for more transparency and information-sharing regarding threats to global health. However, Beijing is now pushing back with a sense of irritation on calls for investigations into the origin of the virus, as the WHO has turned to Wuhan for answers. If we want to prevent future pandemics or end the current one, global cooperation is absolutely necessary. As with climate change, viruses have no borders, therefore we must resist politicisation of the topic. That means working with rivals and focusing on areas where there is an agreement on the need for coordinated action.
Finally, academia is also an opportune area for cooperation. Universities in the EU are seeing an increased number of Chinese applicants, particularly since Brexit. Chinese students abroad represent an opportunity for deeper cultural exchange. It is also an excellent opportunity for young people, the future leaders of an ageing China, to develop greater mutual understanding with their European peers. During their studies, which also benefit local economies, Chinese students are exposed to essential European values and ideas. This can help further the cultivation of civil society upon their return to China. The exchange can result in a newfound appreciation for aspects of Western democracy, even if they continue to support the CCP. Yet the EU should not be naive about Beijing’s attempts to dictate discussions on campus or even requests for students to spy for China. It should be acknowledged and, when possible, limited. This also means diligently maintaining a watchful eye on the agendas and activities of Confucius Institutes, which are Chinese-funded cultural and language centres. However, remaining diligent does not mean treating every Chinese student as a spy. A hostile approach encourages discrimination and further alienates China and its citizens. Similar considerations should be applied to research. While some projects may be justifiably considered too sensitive, academic cooperation creates dialogue between countries and helps foster innovation.
Among the areas in which cooperation should be avoided, the highly contested field of 5G technology is the prime example. States everywhere are assessing the security risks of dependency on Chinese technology providers. Companies such as Huawei have been criticised for allegedly using their hardware for spying. This is precisely what represents a real and imminent threat to the EU. Allowing the implementation of this technology could create long-term concerns, security threats, and a crucial point of weakness. The European Commission has announced that European companies Nokia and Ericsson can replace Huawei in providing 5G infrastructure, and this solution should be prioritised. Particularly because Europe is lagging on telecommunications, this is a chance to catch up while also prioritising security concerns. It would mean a sizable present investment and an initial delay. However, in the long term, this solution would bring ease of mind, while simultaneously supporting European development.
Chinese investment in infrastructure can be seen as a tool for possible expansionism. This means that EU MS must be apprehensive about collaborating with China on investment projects. The BRI is a colossal endevour for developing infrastructure and creating a ‘new silk road’ that better connects China to the world. Critics of the initiative have called the projects debt traps, and cited negative environmental impacts, labour conflicts, and more. Setting aside potential benefits to developing nations, the BRI certainly poses significant risks. In the EU, where about two-thirds of MS are now partners in the project, it opens up yet another opportunity to divide the Union. Much like the 17+1 mechanism, political coercion resulting from promised economic investments gives Beijing a chance to expand its influence over the EU. In addition to this, it could prevent further accessions by driving up candidate countries’ public debt levels (debt trap). Montenegro, an aspiring MS, recently turned to the EU for help to pay for a $1 billion debt to China for the construction of a major highway. Apart from this, there are the security threats that come with China owning or controlling crucial infrastructure such as ports, railways, and strategic companies worldwide. While the EU may not be able to entirely prevent the spread of BRI outside the Union, MS should not feel the need to turn to China to finance infrastructure projects. Instead, the EU should create accessible alternatives to BRI funding, and generally allow MS to invest more in infrastructure, particularly following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finally, the media industry is a clear example of business asymmetry between the EU and China. While China has invested more than €3 billion in European media in the last ten years, European firms are blocked from investing in Chinese media. Beyond this uneven playing field, media is a known tool for soft power, and therefore it is a sector that is vulnerable to manipulation. Simply by utilising existing social media platforms, and hiring citizens to share certain messages at 0.5 yuan per post, China has conducted multiple targeted disinformation campaigns. Similarly, as China was under fire for its actions, and potential responsibility, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation on Europe’s response intensified. Ideas were even falsely spread from Chinese sources that European healthcare workers were leaving the sick to die. China has also long utilised disinformation in attempts to divide Taiwan. These campaigns represent unambiguous attempts at interference in internal affairs, despite Chinas stated position on the matter. Further, when Chinese firms have purchased media companies outright, there have been occasions when this has led to them covering China in a more positive light. One prominent example of this occurred in the Czech Republic, where a Chinese puchased stake in the media company Empresa Media resulted in soley positive coverage of China and its international endeavors. Therefore, we are essentially selling China the tools to manipulate EU MS, their citizens, and the global discussion. As a result of the business imbalance, as well as the real threat of information manipulation, it would be reasonable for the EU to take a similar stance to China with regard to foreign investment in media. The EU must carefully consider strict limits on Chinese participation in its media sector.
Preventing a new cold war is all about stepping back from the inflammatory comparison to the Cold War and critically analysing the actual points of threat, challenge, and rivalry and building a strategy from there. The EU can take a pragmatic approach. In contrast to the Cold War era, today a zero-sum calculation is not required. The EU can support cooperation in necessary areas, such as nuclear non-proliferation and global health, while firmly protecting itself from 5G data abuses, security breaches, and economic coercion. Of course, the first step for the EU is to foster a sense of unity on the topic. It is crucial to stop granting Beijing easy avenues to divide the EU. By staying away from extreme assessments of China’s intentions on the world stage while maintaining a strong and united front acting in the larger interests of the Union, the EU can help to de-escalate tensions. If it does not, the new cold war may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you would like to read more on EU-China relations, feel free to check this other Future of Europe Journal article on the topic here.
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