In early December, President of the European Council Charles Michel traveled to Beijing for his first face-to-face meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
The visit came after two events that epitomize the state of relations between China and the European Union. The Chinese side refused to run a pre-recorded speech criticizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by Michel at the China International Import Expo.
Michel followed in the footsteps of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose visit to the world’s second-largest economy, alongside a business delegation, received considerable criticism.
The Michel-Xi meeting – like Scholz’s tête-à-tête – did not deliver important results while EU-China relations have been spiraling downwards. But neither side seems to have any strategy on how to deal with the other.
In early 2019, the EU started referring to China as a “cooperation partner”, “negotiating partner”, “economic competitor” and “systemic rival”. But since then, the EU has failed to figure out what it wants from the Asian giant.
Most EU actions have so far been defensive against what it considers unfair economic practices or risks coming from Beijing.
Brussels has set up a foreign investment screening mechanism, set guidelines warning against using 5G gear from suppliers considered high-risk, and is imposing restrictions on Chinese involvement in the EU public procurement market.
With different perspectives on relations with China and a lack of unity among and within member states, EU institutions have prevented the creation of a coherent strategy.
Some want to focus on economic relations while others want to prioritize political, security, or human rights issues. Despite individual perspectives, the political environment in Europe has hardened against cooperation with China.
Yet trade and investment links between the two blocs continue to grow. Because the EU and most European governments lack a clear view of how they want to transform bilateral relations with China, relations continue to develop on autopilot.
Beijing also seems unsure of what it wants from Europe or how to achieve its goals.
In theory, China wants to avert a deterioration of relations and maximize economic, technological, and political benefits by preventing the emergence of a trans-Atlantic front against Beijing.
But China has taken almost no concrete steps to achieve these goals. Since 2019, Xi’s administration has not really tried to arrest the precipitous decline in European relations.
The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment should have been such an attempt, but after the conclusion of negotiations, Beijing torpedoed hopes for the deal’s ratification by sanctioning the very people who were supposed to approve it in the European Parliament.
In areas like state distortion of markets, sensitive technology, human rights, worries of political interference in Europe, or aggressive diplomacy, Beijing has only provided more ammunition to those who want to curtail ties with China.
Yet Chinese rhetoric consistently paints a different picture. The Chinese side calls the European Union a partner, pleads for closer cooperation, urges it to pursue “strategic autonomy” and prevent any “third party” from interfering in bilateral relations.
Last year, Xi sent a special representative for Central and East European cooperation on two tours through the region to “explain” China’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and repair relations. It has also sent diplomatic officials on visits throughout Europe.
But Beijing’s actions have been limited to rhetoric and diplomatic gestures. There is no way EU-China relations can be improved without concrete action on Xi’s part – talk alone will not work.
As much as the Communist Party leadership would deny this, it also bears at least part of the blame for the deterioration of EU-China relations and would have to compromise and change its behavior and policies in order to improve relations.
Yet just like in Europe, the political environment in China makes any true detente unlikely.
The Communist Party leadership’s grand narrative of China becoming strong – combined with its reluctance to admit mistakes – makes it highly unlikely that Beijing would be the first to reach out to Brussels.
Neither side can or wants to take the steps necessary to patch up relations.
Nor do they want to recognize political realities and adopt a strategy tailored to the current geopolitical environment of confrontation. Instead, leaders on both sides fall back on the easy option of talks and meetings – even though these will not change trends in bilateral relations.
As the political environment continues to deteriorate, economic ties and other relations simply move forward on autopilot without any side having a clear or realistic view of where they want relations to go or how to get there.
The hardening political environment will eventually impact economic ties.
As relations and cooperation become more controversial, both sides will implement economic restrictions. Future meetings might bring the illusion of communication but will do little to change the trajectory of EU–China relations.
Andrei Lungu is president of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.