Chapter 4 Priorities (Week 5)

4.1 Discussion questions

  • What are the strategic priorities of China?

  • Why did Europe play only a secondary role in China’s foreign policy making according to Zeng (2017)?

  • How would Ferguson have responded to Zeng (2017)?

  • Is China’s BRI effective in Europe, in CEE countries? (*)

EU suspends investment deal with China over ‘retaliatory sanctions’ | DW News

4.2 What are China’s priorities?

CSIS has a recent report that touches on China’s strategic priorities: Is Latin America Important to China’s Foreign Policy?. The report points out that conventionally China’s priorities are Southeast and Central Asia, followed by Europe, and then Africa. This strategic focus appears to be paying dividends. For instance, a recent AidData report indicates:

“China was ranked 8th in overall influence, 7th in Europe and Central Asia, and 3rd in South Asia, in a global survey of nearly 7000 leaders.”

The original report can be downloaded here: Listening to Leaders 2021: A report card for development partners in an era of contested cooperation.

A recent report by MERICS Beijing’s foreign policy priorities shares a similar view and points out China prioritizes its relationship with the US and Russia. Europe does not rank high on China’s list of priorities because the EU is “a geopolitical dwarf” given its inability to function as “a unified foreign policy actor.”

4.3 Europe

Though problematic and potentially confusing, I do not differentiate between the EU and Europe here. One main reason is that “Chinese scholars do not often differentiate (a) Europe as some undefined entity, (b) the EU, and (c) European nation states” (Zeng 2017, 1171).

4.3.1 A second-order concern?

Zeng (2017) is responding to arguments that China and the EU are forming a “new axis” and are challenging the current unipolar world order. He argues China-EU relationship is contingent on the China-US relationship and that China does not perceive the EU as a unified and independent actor in the arena of foreign policy. Although Europe was gradually incorporated into Xi’s grand vision on “new type of great power relations” and “one belt one road” narratives, Zeng argues that it does not change Europe’s marginal role in China’s strategies as the development was mostly shaped by the vagueness of the terms and their tendency to be over-generalized.

According to his interviews with China’s EU experts, Sino-US relations and relationships with neighboring countries are the top priorities; not a single European country is more important than Australia. Chinese experts appear to believe that China’s relationship with Europe is mostly economical, which is less likely to fluctuate than other geopolitical ones.

4.3.2 An untapped balancer?

Ferguson (2018) begins his analysis by highlighting the multipolarity orientation of China, France, and Germany. France has maintained a strong network of influence in global affairs (its links with former colonies, global military presence, 2nd largest diplomatic network, as well as its culture and scientific soft power). Germany has the strongest economy in Europe and has been playing a leading role in regional (East European in particular) issues. With the Ukraine crisis, Brexit, and increasing investment from China, one can only expect Germany to play a larger role in the coming years.

Ferguson’s argument appears to echo the emphasis on EU “strategic autonomy” in recent years. But it should be noted that “strategic autonomy” is quite a complicated and elusive idea. It is not clear whether this is a common strategy shared by member states given the conflicting interpretations (see here: Independence play: Europe’s pursuit of strategic autonomy). Even after the Aukus deal and the declining role of European defense in the broader US strategy, France (as well as other EU states) still cannot discount the role of the US (see here: European defence: the quest for ‘strategic autonomy’).

Now turning to the strategic importance of Europe in China’s foreign policy, Ferguson does acknowledge the doubts on EU autonomy as pointed out by Zeng (2017). But he also emphasizes that with the increasing importance of the BRI and competition with the US, the currently underdeveloped relationship between China and the EU also presents more opportunities. Indeed, Ferguson argues that

" if Russia remains a problematic partner and the US a fickle one, the EU needs China as a progressive supporter on a growing number of Eurasian and global issues."

— Ferguson (2018, 185)

Ferguson acknowledges that China and the EU have several areas of disputes (e.g. human rights, Taiwan, and market access). Despite these disputes, he argues that public opinions from both sides are turning more positive and that there are no vital conflicts of interests (e.g. territorial disputes) between the two. It should be noted that EU countries’ public opinions toward China is not necessarily trending toward the positive side. See for instance this recent report: The new China consensus: How Europe is growing wary of Beijing.

Also, Ferguson’s responses to Maher (2016)’s core argument that “Both China and Europe are either unable or unwilling to contribute much to the main security interests and concerns of the other” are:

  • China is not (merely) Asia-Pacific focused (e.g. Shanghai Cooperation Organization)
  • China is picking up the pace in deepening its diplomatic relationships with European countries

The first point seems to be a bit weak. A stronger response should address whether China’s medium-term strategic focus will be in the Asia-Pacific region. The second point is further elaborated in the reading. But one should put this into a broader perspective: for instance, how do the deepening relationships compare to China’s relationship with Russia?

To be clear, Maher (2016) lays out a broader list of issues where China and the EU remain divided: political values, security interests, and attitudes toward the current liberal international order. He echos a view similar to Zeng (2017):

“Chinese leaders no longer view the EU as a viable or attractive strategic partner … China prefers to deal with national capitals rather than the EU as a whole, provoking and encouraging political divisions in Europe and openly pursuing a divide-and-rule strategy.”

— Maher (2016, 975-976)

4.3.3 Should/will China place a heavier focus on its relationship with European countries?

Building on the above information, there are at least the following questions to address.

  • Will the EU play a more independent and stronger role in global politics?
  • How important are the existing disagreements between the EU and China?
  • What are the costs and benefits for China and the EU in strengthening the relationship?

Jumping to the final questions, the costs could entail betraying EU values, potentially threatening EU-US cooperation (and LIO), among others. There are, however, several benefits the EU can obtain:

  • Direct economic benefits
  • Chinese investment in CEE countries can contribute to the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP)
  • Softening the relationship between China and Russia
  • Further cooperation in areas such as anti-terrorism, UN peacekeeping, climate change, etc.