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The reasons for tensions in Europe-China friendship

Rayhan Ahmed Tapader

Rayhan Ahmed Tapader

Fri, 24 May 24

Two years ago, the European Union (EU) announced a massive global investment plan worth 300 billion euros to counter China's growing influence worldwide. This plan, termed the "Global Gateway Scheme," was unveiled by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The initiative is intended to serve as a genuine alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has seen China invest heavily in various infrastructure projects, such as railways, roads, bridges, and ports, across numerous countries. However, there have been allegations that these countries are falling into a debt trap from which it is extremely difficult to escape.

The President of the European Commission emphasized that countries need reliable partners to implement sustainable projects. To this end, they are trying to mobilize hundreds of billions of euros from EU member states, financial institutions, and the private sector. Von der Leyen stated that the EU wants to demonstrate that a different democratic approach can deliver projects that address climate change, global health security, and sustainable development for developing countries. According to her, the projects must be of high quality, ensure high levels of transparency and governance, and provide tangible results for the countries involved. An EU official mentioned that the main focus of their grand plan would be Africa-centric. China's strategic plans have already reached Africa, Asia, the Indo-Pacific region, and even Europe.

For example, China's COSCO Company owns two-thirds of Greece's Piraeus Port, and China Road and Bridge Corporation has built a major bridge in Croatia. Regarding this, the EU President noted that when it comes to investment choices, even among the few options available, there are many minor details that can have significant consequences—financially, politically, or socially. Interestingly, the very nation the EU aims to counter with this grand plan, China, has welcomed the initiative. In a briefing, Chinese Ambassador to the EU Zhang Ming said Beijing would welcome the EU's Global Gateway plan if it is open and beneficial to developing countries. However, he also warned that if infrastructure projects are turned into geopolitical tools, they will fail to meet the international community's expectations and harm the initiators themselves.

Reflecting on recent years, it is clear that 2019 is not very long ago; yet for Chinese President Xi Jinping, it marked the beginning of a different era. After a five-year gap, 2019 saw Xi Jinping’s first European tour. During this period, the world faced the severe experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, the origins of which remain somewhat mysterious. Additionally, the world witnessed Russia's aggression in Ukraine, which Beijing has strategically supported. All of this means that the way most European countries viewed China in 2019 has changed. Aware of this shift, Xi Jinping carefully planned his European itinerary.

After his visit to France, Xi Jinping traveled to Hungary and Serbia, the latter not being a member of the European Union. Xi Jinping's visit to France has been described as a model of bilateral relations with China. Both Hungary and Serbia are strong supporters of China in Europe. Xi praised Serbia as a "solid friend" of China, with bilateral trade and investment between the two countries increasing. This includes China’s investment of $2.2 billion in Serbia's wind, solar, and hydropower projects. Among the 27 members of the European Union, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is Xi Jinping's closest ally. Orban maintains close relations not only with China but also with Russia, a stance that sets him apart from other European leaders. During Xi Jinping's visit to Hungary, he welcomed Viktor Orban, stating that Hungary is the main hub for the production and supply of Chinese electric vehicles and other automated products in Europe. Serbia and Hungary's views on China differ from the contemporary opinions in the rest of Europe.

The EU's primary stance on China was revealed in a statement by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who met with the Chinese President in France last Monday. She declared a policy of "de-risking" or avoiding trade with risky products from China. Coincidentally, Xi Jinping's visit to Europe marked the 60th anniversary of Paris-Beijing relations, and he received a warm welcome in France. Although von der Leyen held discussions with Xi Jinping, the political atmosphere of this European tour was markedly different from his visit five years ago.

Five years ago, Italy warmly welcomed Xi Jinping. Italy was the first G7 country to sign onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a decision that was controversial in the Western world at the time. The Trump administration in Washington criticized Italy for this decision. Italy's current Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, who took office in 2022, canceled the agreement with China last year. This was inevitable given the ongoing economic and political tensions between China and the European Union. Politically, the major complaint from the Western world is China's significant human rights violations against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province. Economically, China is seen as trying to outcompete the European Union with its state-subsidized production of electric vehicles, batteries, and solar panels. EU leaders have continuously expressed concerns that China is interfering in European politics from the outside. They argue that China is employing a "divide and rule" strategy, which undermines the continent's collective interests.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has also accused China of seeking to establish alternative forms of governance in Europe. Regardless, the EU’s policy towards China is evidently becoming stricter. Even the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, which Beijing managed to conclude after years of effort, has been sent back for review by the European Parliament. The main concern behind this stalled agreement is China's behavior. While there are efforts to establish more solid unity on the China issue within Europe, bringing together all 27 countries under one umbrella is proving to be a real struggle. China is seizing this opportunity. Xi Jinping's European tour began in France.

Despite taking a hard stance against Russia following its aggression in Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron has been welcoming China on broader issues. For instance, during his visit to Beijing last year with von der Leyen, Macron spoke of mutual benefits in economic terms rather than "de-risking." He also distanced himself from prioritizing the Taiwan issue. While von der Leyen emphasized the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait, Macron stated that Taiwan is not their crisis and that Europeans should not follow American policy. The content of recent discussions between China and France was closely monitored not only by Europe but also by the United States. President Joe Biden had finalized his visit to France a month earlier.

Given the overall context, Xi Jinping might hope that his European tour could be seen as a significant realignment of relations with Europe post-pandemic. While his visits to France, Serbia, and Hungary were very cordial, the reality is that the broader friendship between China and Europe will remain cool and may even deteriorate further this year. The wars in Ukraine and Gaza have led to a depletion of U.S. military resources, making a direct conflict with China a last resort for the United States.

However, the U.S. refusal to confront China could increase the risk of conflict in the region, and such a conflict could become more destructive. The U.S. has already allowed China to gain a strong position in the South China Sea. Achieving what it now holds in the South China Sea would have required an all-out war for China a decade ago. Recent provocations by China in the South China Sea indicate that Xi Jinping is now more aggressive in advancing his expansionist agenda, despite the growing risk of conflict.

On the other hand, the U.S. failure to curb China's aggressive expansionism has already damaged Washington's own prestige, security, and trade interests. President Joe Biden has emphasized that the U.S. seeks "competition, not conflict" with China; however, China aims to establish its strategic dominance in the South China Sea and is willing to take risks for it. The South China Sea is now a testing ground for American resolve, and it appears Biden is already failing this test.

Author: Researcher and columnist

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