Does China Pose a Threat to the European Union?

Europe has recently been facing several challenges; the increasing rise of nationalism, the demise of the European Union project, and its turbulent relationship with the United States. Furthermore, the rise of China and the prospect of its exerting influence in European affairs is a growing concern, amongst many commentators. However, the nature of this threat has been misconstrued since many have failed to understand or consider the true limitations of China’s political power. Besides commercial relationships, Europe and China have extraordinarily little in common. The imaginary perception of China as a superpower is due to several distinct yet connected factors: a genuine misunderstanding of the reality on the ground, the insecurity of individual states, and on the intentional front to fashion China to appear as a substantial threat.

The Commercial Gap

In 2017, China surpassed the United States as the biggest trading partner to Germany which undoubtedly contributes to a growing Chinese labour market; however, China has repeatedly failed to deliver on its trading commitments, and the Europeans have yet to see the real tangible benefits. Some senior E.U officials describe this trend as “China fatigue”, where after years of investments which promised a profitable yield, have delivered very little. In 2009, the China Overseas Engineering Group (COVEC) offered to build two sections of Poland’s A2 highway, running from Warsaw to the German border. The gains for both nations were encouraging where the Polish government would get new highways at cost-effective prices. In return, China would use Poland to break into Europe’s construction sector. However, China failed to deliver.

China has been unsuccessful in gaining any influence within Eastern Europe where the ‘16+1 cooperation mechanism’- a platform jointly launched by China and 16 Central and Eastern European countries (CEEC) failed to bring any real tangible results. China did not make its intentions transparent, was unable to deliver on many of its lofty promises to provide assurances to its Eastern and Central European partners, which has led the E.U to criticize China’s role on the continent progressively. Moreover, substantially higher trade tariffs are imposed on European firms in China than in the United States or Japan. For example, in 2017, the average tariff for E.U products entering the U.S was only 1.4 per cent, and for E.U products entering Japan was as low as 2.0 per cent — in contrast to the hefty 8.75 per cent levied in China. As the European Union champions robust multilateralism and the free flow of goods and services. The Chinese tariff barriers have made it needlessly challenging for the E.U as Beijing is an export behemoth, which utilizes protectionist mechanisms that aid the nation in shielding its industry and maintaining a high level of exports.

The European Union and China are two of the biggest traders in the world. Currently, China is the European Union’s second-biggest trading partner behind the United States where China and Europe trade on average, over €1 billion a day. By adopting a precarious trade strategy which aids China in generating profits. Subsequently, it cannot afford to decrease its exports unless it discovers an alternative trade approach that departs from the current export-oriented model to a domestic consumption model. Currently, the E.U remains in a trade deficit with China, and Beijing wants to maintain this status quo, which is firmly in its favour, at least for now. On the other hand, the European Union, views the former status quo as a barrier to increasing its economic prosperity.

How China Views Europe

From a Chinese perspective, Europe is a platform where China can build and strengthen its trade relations to bolster the Chinese economy. On the flip side, China views European nations (not all) with disdain as it holds many responsible for its century of humiliation. Moreover, China wants to be viewed as a trusted member of the international community, where its ascendancy should be viewed as something non-confrontational and peaceful. China also demands respect and recognition of its nation’s status, history, and culture.

China’s political power is limited since both its soft and hard power are not able to establish any real political influence in Europe or even regionally (South Asian Pacific) for that matter. Unlike the U.S which can exert its political weight in European affairs as required and across the globe. The Middle Kingdom (Zhonghu) understands that its values are not aligned with that of Europe. It is also starting to recognize that it lacks an intellectual, coherent and comprehensive doctrine towards man, life and universe which can offer a complete suite of solutions in the realm of political, economic, and social spheres, as did the Soviet Union of the past, or like the liberal West. Therefore, China lacks the multi-dimensional nature, which can counter the current secular-liberal ideology of America and the larger West. For this reason, it is difficult for China to gain political influence in European affairs because it can only offer commercial benefits, which have not been that promising either.

Owing to the limitations of China’s political acumen and influence, the only approach China can utilize within its midst to achieve the former is to create economic relations with the Europeans. Therefore, China is trying to use trade and AI as a strategic tool to ensure Europe remains contingent on China, leveraging Beijing control and political influence over European affairs. Beijing believes that such an approach would increase its chances of building political ties with the Europeans, which would also help China in distracting the U.S from its operations in the South China Sea.

However, the former premise is flawed and pragmatic. Presuming that commercial deals alone would help Beijing establish political influence within European affairs and in doing so, improve China’s image is based on a short-sighted prospect. Thus, it explains why the U.S has remained mostly reticent on Beijing’s economic projects, not just in Europe but also within the Western Hemisphere. It shows that both America and China have very distinct aspirations; one is overtly political, and the other is commercially centric.

How Europe views China

Initially, Europe viewed China’s rise as somewhat promising and potentially beneficial; however, the Europeans, particularly, the Franco-German axis have become rather contemptuous of China. Europe’s proximity towards America and the liberal world order is what precipitates the same cynicism within Europe. Beijing does not realize that ineffectual economic assurances and the likelihood of prospective technological dominance over European affairs is not a primary concern for the Europeans. Instead, it is the enormous gulf that exists between Chinese and European ideas and values. The European Union is a creature of Kant’s multilateralism where liberal democracy, trade without barriers, the rule of law, and the sacred implementation of the four freedoms within Europe — even though many have a plethora of means to achieve such standards. This is what the E.U’s identity is based upon. On the contrary, China doesn’t possess such a robust system that can effectively regulate people’s affairs from such a comprehensive and a coherent-angle because what binds China together is the financial capital and Chinese mass nationalism, not an ideology like the European Union. So, Europe’s cynicism towards China is premised upon on China exercising political influence and posing a threat to their values in the foreseeable future via economic and technological means.

In reality, Germany is the only European nation that opts to trade with the Chinese due to Germany’s neo-mercantile export-driven economy. Owing to Berlin’s economic control and power within the Eurozone, other countries would not benefit much from trade with China since Beijing itself is an export machine. Most European nations are in a trade deficit due to Germany’s influence on the ECB through the Deutsche Bundesbank, and for this reason, trading with China is not going to help them.

In sum, Chinese prospects have not looked promising within Europe since China has failed to deliver on its promises and coupled with the growing concern of China’s treatment of its Uighur population in the Xinjiang province. Hence, the E.U can’t form a cordial relationship with such a state because it would undermine its liberal standing even though Europe’s treatment of immigrants has not aided its reputation as a promoter of human rights and freedom.

Compounding the Dilemmas

The Europeans have misread the situation because China can’t gain a political foothold in Europe because it hasn’t even able to acquire one within its region. Europe further, fails to recognize that China does not endorse an alternative ideology to counter Western liberalism. To prove this is quite simple.

During the Covid-19 crisis, many Western nations failed to solve the crisis putting Western liberal values under the light of scrutiny where the current liberal system resulted in prolonging the crisis instead, of resolving the catastrophe. If China had a comprehensive system which provided an alternative to the present Western-liberal political, economic, social structure, then it would have already lured many nations under its sphere. But the communist China is a thing of the past. Today, China is a commercial being, not an ideological one. China adopting capitalism fused with a flavour of its own goes to illustrate that it possesses no alternative economic system to Western capitalism. Instead, it has copied and pasted the same economic system from the West with few modifications, which shouldn't be considered as a great achievement.

As for China’s political power and awareness:- What is China’s stance or official policies on issues of Israel-Palestine, Ukraine, Brexit or the European Union’s political and overall brewing crisis? Unfortunately, it is non-existent.

Thus, China does not pose a severe threat to the European Union as many like to indicate. The reason, Europe remains sceptical of a growing China is because European Union is remnant as a bloc where disunity reigns and conflict amongst many has increased over the years due to their failure of achieving European unity. Today, Europe is in a challenging position where the American power is pressuring Europe to take more responsibility regarding NATO, the rise of nationalism and grassroots populism, and the growing concerns of immigrants where European nations have failed to assimilate them within their society. Hence, Europe being in a such weak and a challenging position, it has misperceived China’s economic rise as a potential threat, which can manifest into political influence, consequently posing a threat to its values and objectives. But the probability of China exerting such political power within European affairs is mute because the reality is that China is neither politically ambitious in its foreign policy, especially towards Europe and neither it has an alternative ideology to replace the the West’s liberal ideals. The real threat within Europe is between the members, which is due to their shortcomings and the external pressure from the United States as it wants a weakened and a more responsible Europe.

In international politics, misperceptions between states are quite common, where it can lead to undesirable outcomes, especially when a nation is in a state of decline where it begins to misperceive several international issues as a threat. The media has also played a role in creating negative propaganda for the European public regarding China where it portrays China as a new rising ‘superpower’, which is far from reality because China is extremely limited in its political ambitions outside its borders. Ironically, the United States maintains much more political influence in the South Asian Pacific than China currently holds because China’s quest is purely commercial. In truth, China has come a long way but to insinuate that it is a serious threat and will gain a political foothold within Europe, geopolitically rival the United States and consequently rule the world in the foreseeable future is far from reality.

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Hashim Abid is an Analyst and a Researcher of Global Affairs. @LSe

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Hashim Abid

Hashim Abid

Hashim Abid is an Analyst and a Researcher of Global Affairs. @LSe

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