By Grzegorz Stec
“Spring for China-Europe cooperation has arrived,” was the announcement made by Beijing after French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen touched down in Beijing. Several Chinese intellectuals echoed this, labelling a lineup of European leaders’ visits to China a “little spring thaw” (小阳春).
The reengagement proceeds despite several unresolved points of tension between the EU and China, such as Beijing’s continued support for Moscow, differing visions of the international order going forward or human rights abuses in Xinjiang, to name but a few.
This may appear to be a contradiction, making the EU’s strategic communication on China and towards China increasingly complex. In an era of emerging bloc politics and battles of narratives, such lack of clarity amounts to a strategic vulnerability, that is, the EU’s position can easily be misinterpreted on purpose to limit the desired impact.
Discussions of Chinese officials and think tank experts surrounding von der Leyen and Macron’s China visits show the potential for the EU to pursue its engagement with China under the frame of de-risking, but also highlight the urgent need for the EU to convey a coordinated and consistent message.
De-risking viewed from China: glass half empty, glass half full
Ahead of her trip to Beijing alongside Macron, President von der Leyen tried to frame the re-engagement as one part of the EU’s wider – and increasingly assertive – China policy. In her most comprehensive speech on the EU’s China policy to date, von der Leyen argued that the EU needs to “de-risk, not decouple” in its relations with China through political and economic de-risking (see our latest MERICS China Essentials for speech details). Her trip to Beijing was to an extent a communication mission to speak frankly with Chinese counterparts, at the same time, leading by example and showing what a de-risking form of engagement looks like for other European leaders to emulate going forward.
Despite initial knee-jerk reactions from Chinese diplomats, Chinese experts did not dismiss the “de-risking” agenda, pointing to some positive implications for China in von der Leyen’s overall assertive policy proposal.
For instance, Cui Hongjian (Quote 1) stated that the approach is an attempt by the Commission to find a space between the “two extremes” in European discussions on China policy. Yan Shaohua (Quote 2) and Peng Chongzhou from Fudan University Center for China Relations also pointed out that the de-risking rhetoric means that while the EU shares the US assessment of the challenge posed by China, it develops a different policy response – and such differences between the transatlantic partners are welcomed in China’s books.
Several Chinese analysts also emphasized that the approach explicitly leaves room for cooperation with China in areas that do not fall under the “risky” category. The engagement-focused visit of President Macron and his 50-strong business entourage facilitated a flurry of business deals, ranging from sales deals of Airbus aircraft to Alstom’s metro construction contracts. It was interpreted as proof that the European leaders remain committed to doing business despite the EU’s emphasis on risk-mitigation measures. Opinions differed as to whether this contradicts the de-risking logic or whether this type of engagement can be considered “un-risky.”
China will create its own interpretation of “de-risking”
But as the EU debates embracing the de-risking frame for its China policy, it should be mindful of Beijing’s potential attempts to hijack or redefine the meaning of the concept. In the immediate aftermath of President von der Leyen’s speech, Chinese MFA officials (Quotes 4 and 5) pushed to reframe the concept to mean preventing a spillover of ideological differences to economic relations and opposing geopolitical bloc building – both interpretations aligned with Beijing’s objectives.
Such redefining is not new in China’s communication strategies. Beijing’s routine attempts to reduce the EU’s concept of strategic autonomy to simply mean decreasing the EU’s reliance on the United States, is but one example.
A lack of clarity around this concept was present also during the visit. In her engagement with the press, von der Leyen spoke of the EU’s “open strategic autonomy” as a primarily defensive and policy-focused response, highlighting, for instance, coordinated pandemic responses or the mitigation of vulnerabilities stemming from potential supply chain breakdowns. In turn, President Macron sent signals in favor of “strategic autonomy” understood primarily as expanding the EU’s autonomic capabilities and pursuing the “third way” approach as an alternative to bloc-building created by Sino-American rivalry.
Macron referenced de-risking as a tool for achieving that goal by limiting dependence on other actors, primarily in reference to the US. Macron also controversially suggested that the EU should avoid being dragged into escalations surrounding Taiwan in a way that would undermine its strategic autonomy efforts, a statement that has been critically received in many European capitals.
Inconsistencies in strategic communication weaken the EU’s position
These kinds of inconsistencies in strategic communication on key concepts from EU leaders weaken the EU’s geopolitical position.
The visit of Macron and von der Leyen to China was a major opportunity for the EU to set the tone for the EU’s ongoing diplomatic reopening and to project a distinct European position that is clear-eyed about the differences between the EU and China. However, the insufficiently coordinated messaging leaves the EU exposed to China – and arguably also other actors – to hijack the EU’s narratives for their own ends.
With German Foreign Affairs Minister Annalena Baerbock already in China, subsequent upcoming visits from European leaders, and discussions on the de-risking agenda likely to take place between EU capitals before the EU-China summit expected in a few months, developing a coherent strategic communication strategy on engaging with China should be the priority for the EU. Von der Leyen’s suggestion appears to be a sober middle ground position for the EU to explore. While Brussels’ hope for EU members to sing from the same hymn sheet may remain out of reach, they should still develop a unified melody to which they can all sing along.