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Geopolitical obstacles to China-Europe cooperation

Geopolitical obstacles to China-Europe cooperation
15 May 2024 09:29


The writer is a Senior Researcher and Director of the Research Department at the TRENDS Research and Advisory

In the current tense climate between China and Europe resulting from trade disputes and the conflict in Ukraine, Beijing aims to ease tensions by establishing a solid foundation for its relations with Europe.

This effort seeks to insulate trade and economic cooperation from geopolitical pressures, amidst China’s complex ties with Russia and the ongoing competition between Washington and Beijing on the global stage.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent European tour, his first since 2019, included stops in France, Serbia, and Hungary.

The tour aimed to address major global challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, while also focusing on building political trust and addressing trade barriers.

The initiative for this tour came from French President Emmanuel Macron, who sought to coordinate European positions on areas of dispute and cooperation with China.

The tour also included discussions between Beijing and Paris, attended by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, with the goal of expanding access to the Chinese market for European exports.

This is particularly important as European car manufacturers face declining sales against Chinese government-backed competition, and intellectual property issues in various industries need resolution.

With China looking to deepen its economic ties with the EU, which currently amount to 2.3 billion euros daily, France, which is the EU’s only nuclear power, seeks to bolster Europe’s economic independence from global powers.

This becomes more pressing due to disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine, the EU’s sanctions on Russia, and Europe’s suspicions regarding the Beijing-Moscow relationship.

These factors have led the EU to strive for reduced dependence on China. In Central and Eastern Europe, Serbia and Hungary are seen as friends with China, close to Russia, and key to Chinese ambitions in the region.

Beijing has made significant investments in infrastructure, manufacturing, mining, energy, and technology in these countries, aiming to benefit from avoiding high customs tariffs in Europe.

Hungary, in particular, is the first EU country to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with China upgrading the railway between Budapest and Belgrade as part of the initiative.

In addition, a free trade agreement was signed between Serbia and China.

President Xi’s European tour also commemorated significant events, such as the 25th anniversary of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia and the 60th anniversary of French-Chinese diplomatic relations.

With Paris hosting the upcoming Summer Olympics, there is also a desire to use Beijing’s influence to promote the Olympics as a diplomatic opportunity to ease international tensions.

China’s objective and balanced stance on the Ukraine conflict could allow it to use its influence to push for a solution.

While Europe is not happy with Beijing’s stance of not condemning the war and fears that it might export technology which Moscow could use in the conflict, France and several European countries seek to urge China to pressure Moscow to cease its operations in Ukraine.

However, relying on Beijing to push towards peace has yet to yield results, and geopolitical tensions are likely to persist.

While China and Hungary have upgraded their relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership, and Beijing and Belgrade have decided to build a community of shared future, France has not been successful in uniting Europeans on a cohesive strategy for dealing with China.

Europe’s desire for economic independence from the US in its dealings with China and other global partners is significant, but overreliance on this desire might not be prudent.

Overall, the Chinese president’s European tour did not result in significant economic breakthroughs with France.

However, it could be a step towards enhancing economic relations if both China and EU countries are willing to change their relationship from competition to cooperation.

This shift would require moving away from dependence on the US towards bilateral relations that align European and Chinese interests.

China’s objective and balanced stance on the Ukraine conflict could allow it to use its influence to push for a solution

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