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1 Apr, 2022 16:11

Can the EU afford to threaten and punish China?

As the US pushes its European allies to consolidate in rebuking Beijing, is such unity really feasible?
Can the EU afford to threaten and punish China?

Since the conflict in Ukraine began, there has been a concerted effort to try and establish greater ‘transatlantic’ control over Western Europe's foreign policy, or to speak more explicitly, to put it in line with that of the United States.

America’s foreign influence operations on the continent are huge, ranging from an army of funded think tanks, to allied journalists, to of course politicians. It is little surprise that the situation with Russia has weaved into the longstanding effort to get Europe to also conform to America’s preferences on China, also, and dismantle the ‘Merkel legacy’ of engagement with Beijing .

This makes the China-EU summit, on Friday, such a critical juncture. It is inevitable that newspapers such as the Financial Times have sought to frame this event in solely negative narratives for Beijing, running a story titled: ‘Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forges new unity of EU purpose on China’ and forecasting that a tougher stance on China which will attempt to ‘pressure’ it to disavow Moscow. 

But this posturing is far from reality. What the EU says and what the EU does are often two separate things, seeking to project the appearance of unity no matter what. In practice, the Brussels does not in fact have the political will, unity, or means anymore to comprehensively force Beijing to do anything, especially after it has reaffirmed that its strategic partnership with Russia continues to be of “no limits.”

Not only, for that matter, is the EU’s apparent unity on Russia, which the Financial Times piece attempts to frame as “surprising” for Beijing, significantly exaggerated, but it seems even less plausible that the bloc has the political resolve to endure the pain of a head-on collision against a much stronger economic partner such as China, which is now larger than the entire EU in terms of nominal GDP.

Either way, it seems clear that the pathway of aligning with American foreign policy interests is going to make Western Europe weaker, poorer, and less relevant than ever before – typical of the self-sabotage it has often imposed on itself at the behest of Washington.

The approach of Western nations towards China over Ukraine is increasingly that of having their cake and eating it too – Beijing is presented as an adversary, a competitor, and a rival; it is depicted constantly with suspicion, disdain, and scepticism in the mainstream media. There is a move to try and militarize its entire surroundings, with the United States urging European countries to adopt ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategies, send warships into the South China Sea, and support Taiwan, whilst relations with it are portrayed as a binary struggle for dominance between authoritarianism and liberal democracy.

Over the past two years, the goodwill the West has collectively shown towards China has been minimal. Whilst most of Europe has not been on the same level as the English-speaking nations, the efforts by the US to turn the screws have been noticeable through its channels of influence. Yet despite this, China is still expected to cooperate and do the bidding of the West on various things which serve their own interests, often on the back of various threats.

It is inevitable on such a stance that China will continue to see its strategic partnership with Russia as multifaceted and crucial. Why would Beijing throw Moscow under the bus in favour of the West, when the West quite explicitly shows no goodwill or intent to China whatsoever? Beijing is right to hedge its options and interests accordingly. While that may not involve completely endorsing the situation in Ukraine, nor does it involve condemning it at the demand of certain countries either. China’s hedging is both prudent and strategic – it would be naïve to trust the US and its allies. If there is any cooperation or favours to be had regarding this situation, Beijing is within its right to demand a high price in return.

Do the EU members want peace talks? Then, for example, furthering the China-EU comprehensive investment agreement (CAI) must be part of it, or ending Lithuania’s ludicrous adventurism regarding Taiwan. Beyond the tough rhetoric, it should also be noted that the EU is not in a position of strength right now to seriously push back, even if it wants to. Germany’s annual economic growth forecast has been cut to just 1.8% as its disastrous energy policies begin to take their toll, whilst inflation has reached a record of nearly 10% in Spain. Can the EU afford to threaten and punish China? And will every EU state stand for it? Not a chance. 

Thus, beyond the usual political posturing, China will approach the EU summit shrewdly and pragmatically, keeping its hand carefully and subtly ensuring it does not want to rock the boat. Europe, of course, may not be amicable or friendly to China as it once was, given the influences exerted on it, but that’s a different ballgame altogether than being unified or having the space to push back against Beijing as a bloc, given it can scarcely do so with Moscow. But ultimately, if European countries want real results here, they’re going to have to be willing to give at least as much a they take in their approach to China and stop believing in the transatlantic fantasies. They should finally ask themselves: Does their self-proclaimed strategic autonomy truly exist? Or are they going to throw away win-win diplomacy with their largest trading partners to suit the qualms of Washington? It’s very much crunch time.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.