European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (left), Chinese President Xi Jinping, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel gather in the courtyard of the Elysee Palace ahead of a meeting in Paris on March 26. Photo: Bloomberg
by Emilian Kavalski and Maximilian Mayer
by Emilian Kavalski and Maximilian Mayer

How to make the most of China’s accidental rise as a European power

  • Brussels has misread Beijing’s global aspirations – there is no grand plan behind Chinese acquisitions of European assets
  • But, as China becomes a stakeholder in Europe, the continent should adopt a pragmatic strategy to profit from this
The past three years have seen increasingly vocal European criticism of China’s involvement in the continent. This culminated in March with the European Commission’s designation of China as a systemic rival.
What is behind such hostility? Is it China’s growing global footprint through its gargantuan “Belt and Road Initiative”? Is it Beijing’s bonhomie with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe?

Of all the factors that explain European wariness, the underlying one is the realisation that China is here to stay. What is peculiar, however, is that China’s rise as a power in Europe came by accident, rather than design.

In 1995, Richard Holbrooke – the then US assistant secretary of state for European affairs – called America a European power. His observation rested on, among other things, the fact that president Bill Clinton had made four trips to the continent the year before.

By this metric, China is on its way to becoming a European power. In 2018, President Xi Jinping made two stops in Europe, and Premier Li Keqiang visited the continent twice.

Yet, while the US can point to significant historical, economic and cultural entanglements with Europe, China seems to be an interloper. After the second world war, the US made commitments to Europe’s economic recovery through the Marshall Plan, and to its security through Nato.

In contrast, China lacks extensive, institutionalised linkage to Europe. Although Beijing can spin yarns about Silk Road connectivity that goes back centuries, these stories are not exactly rooted in the material reality of the continent.
However, possible investments in Italian ports and infrastructure projects in eastern Europe indicate a broader engagement with the continent than either Beijing or any European capital expected.

China has cultivated relationships with a wide array of European actors. Owing to Beijing’s preference for bilateralism, these relationships have tended to follow contingent, idiosyncratic trajectories.

Following Chinese deals on the Greek port of Piraeus in 2009, the Swedish carmaker Volvo in 2010, the German robotics company Kuka in 2016, and Banque Internationale à Luxembourg in 2017, many in Europe might find it hard to believe that China has no official strategy for acquiring European assets.
But although Beijing encourages companies to buy assets abroad, these investments are often results of happenstance. In the case of Piraeus, the port had to be privatised as part of the troika’s bailout programme for Greece.

To the extent there is any pattern, it merely reflects the growing number of Chinese investors able to acquire assets in the developed world.

Still, the cumulative effect of Chinese practices and investments in Europe is difficult to ignore. Much criticism has been directed at China’s 16+1 framework for relations with 16 Central and Eastern European countries.
European officials have accused China of dividing the continent, but what this view conveniently neglects is that many Western European economies – Germany’s, for instance – are more dependent on exports to China than their Eastern European counterparts.

Since the end of the cold war, Central and Eastern Europe have viewed the US, the European Union and Russia as reference points for their foreign policies. The emergence of China provides a unique opportunity for a rethink.

Against this backdrop, the label of “systemic rival” represents Brussels’ misreading of Beijing’s global aspirations. The accusation that China wants to split up Europe has no validity merely because politicians and pundits repeat it.

Has anyone ever answered satisfyingly what exactly China would gain from a weakened and divided Europe? Don’t forget the Western end of the belt and road plan is the common European market.

Central and Eastern European countries are mere way stations to far more lucrative markets in western Europe.

Although China’s growing influence does warrant monitoring, a European strategy that picks a fight with a great power over fictional geopolitical tensions is in need of explanation – especially when China’s presence in Europe is dwarfed by Russia’s.

On the positive side, harsh EU rhetoric might nudge China to own its position as a European stakeholder. In a way, the 16+1 meetings are a positive signal that Chinese diplomacy is learning from European practices; the grouping is a Chinese-led multilateral platform, and its meetings are conducted in a transparent manner and open to EU officials.

Europeans should not jump to conclusions about, for example, using Huawei equipment in 5G networks. The current debate about China is a hodgepodge of geopolitical conspiracy theories, cold-war-style anti-authoritarian rhetoric and China bashing.

Yet, China has the potential to collaborate with Europe in tackling global issues from poverty to climate change. Under certain conditions, it could even become a security partner in the Mediterranean.

In a rapidly changing strategic landscape – with volatile transatlantic relations and rising populism – a meaningful conversation about China requires appreciation of the realities of living in a complex world, where interlocutors can perform multiple, contradictory roles at the same time.

It is impossible to wish away China, and unwise to ignore the fact that it is already a European stakeholder. Instead, a pragmatic approach to China should preserve the diversity of roles that the country, as an accidental European power, could play in the context of European aspirations.

Emilian Kavalski is the Li Dak Sum Chair Professor in China-Eurasia relations and international studies and the director of the Global Institute for Silk Roads Studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China, where Maximilian Mayer is an assistant professor in international studies