As US President Joe Biden called on world leaders trying to build an alliance of Western democracies to counter China, Beijing has also turned to the region. Since December, Chinese President Xi Jinping has spoken to more than 10 European leaders by phone or video conference.
According to Beijing’s calculation, Washington will never be able to form an effective alliance against China without the economic and political weight of Europe. And Beijing is moving fast, relying on two of its greatest foreign policy tools: trade and vaccines.
In December, Chinese officials made concessions to the European Union (EU) to secure the EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement (CIA) after seven years of negotiations. The European Commission called it “the most ambitious deal that China has ever concluded with a third country”.
Last week, Chinese leader Xi chaired a virtual summit with more than 10 leaders from Central and Eastern Europe (EEC), pledging to cooperate on the distribution of vaccines. China has also signed 53 trade deals totaling nearly $ 13 billion. And Beijing has promised to import $ 170 billion in goods from central and eastern Europe over the next five years.
Divide and rule
The transatlantic relationship between the United States and its European allies has been one of the strongest in the world since World War II, and continued throughout the Cold War in the face of the threat of the Soviet Union. However, the alliance seems less unified on the issue of collective pressure on Beijing.
A day after Xi called for multilateralism and an end to the so-called Cold War mentality at the World Economic Forum in Davos at the end of the month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also rejected calls to Europe to choose sides between the United States and China.
I would very much like to avoid the construction of blocks, ”Merkel told the forum.
“I don’t think it would do a lot of corporations justice if we said it’s the United States and over there is China and we band together around one or the other. is not my understanding of the way things should be.
A few days later, French President Emmanuel Macron also said that the EU should not gang up on China with the United States.
A situation with all together against China is a scenario of the most conflictual possible. This one, to me, is counterproductive, Macron said in a discussion broadcast by Washington-based think tank, the Atlantic Council earlier this month.
Polls show that the opinions of European leaders reflect those of their audiences. A recent opinion poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) found that a majority of Europeans want their country to remain neutral in a conflict between the United States and China, with 66% of Germans being of this opinion. The pan-European think tank’s survey of 11 European countries also found that most people believe China will be more powerful than the United States within a decade.
Peter Morici, former director of the Bureau of Economics of the United States’ International Trade Commission, said that unlike some of the Asian countries which face direct Chinese military threats, Europe is far removed from regional disputes of China with its neighbors.
While European leaders want Washington to provide security and defense assistance, they must also do business with China, Morici told VOA in a telephone interview.
“They recognize China as a systemic threat. They are very worried that China will buy out their industry, but yet they are exporting machine tools to China. And so the Germans, they see this as a way to profit.”
Will China succeed?
Gary J. Schmitt, resident researcher at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said that at the government level, China’s strategy has so far been relatively successful. Promises of investment and access to the Chinese market have led many governments to put narrow commercial interests ahead of long-term concerns.
However, it is not clear that Europe will continue to do so, Schmitt said in an interview.
“Chinese behavior at the national and international level has created a wave of negative public opinions and these negative opinions are starting to have an impact in the European Parliament and among parliamentarians from various countries,” Schmitt noted.
China established the 17 + 1 Central and Eastern Europe group in 2012 to promote trade and trade relations, but analyst Andreea Brnz, vice president of the Romanian Institute for the Study of Asia-Pacific , says that so far there was little to show for China promises investment and infrastructure.
“From my perspective, the 17 + 1 is a zombie mechanic, kept alive by these annual summits,” Brnz told VOA in an email.
Brnz, whose research focuses on China’s geopolitics, pointed out that the leaders of six EU countries did not show up for this year’s “17 + 1” summit, publicly snubbing Xi Jinping.
“They jumped over the top to make a statement and send a message to their allies,” she told VOA.
Ivana Karaskova, the founder of Chinese Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE) listed the Hong Kong protests, the Xinjiang issue and COVID-19 among the reasons these governments decided to participate at a lower level. While EU members are clearly signaling a more independent foreign policy, she added in a telephone interview, “that does not necessarily mean that it is moving closer to China. Of course not.”
Meanwhile, the EU statistical agency Eurostat said this week that China has become the EU’s largest trading partner in 2020, overtaking the United States. Analysts said China’s economy is now behaving at near COVID levels as the rest of the world struggles to cope with the pandemic.
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