/ China’s growing influence in the West: How is the EU affected?

The European Union (EU) and China established formal diplomatic ties in 1975 with the aim of facilitating cooperation in the areas of ‘peace, prosperity, sustainable development and people-to-people exchanges.’[1]Connected by their strategic partnership, the regions have since become

mutually indispensable economic partners, constituting two of the three largest economies world-wide, whilst maintaining their positions as the biggest global players for international trade, along with the US. Nevertheless, over the last decades, the exponential increase in China’s economic prosperity and growing global influence has greatly altered the status quo. With the changing context of the Sino-European relations, the EU has become increasingly skeptical of China’s influence in the West, particularly concerning trade, investment, and the growing European support for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched in 2013.

The 21st bilateral summit between the EU and China took place on April 9th. The annual event provides a forum for high-level engagement to address international and regional issues, and for advancing comprehensive Sino-European relations as is expressed in the EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation. This year’s meeting was set to fall-short, taking place only weeks after the European Commission labelled China a political “systemic rival”. There was little optimism for successful negotiations, particularly in terms of major trade agreements and World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. It was even questioned whether a joint statement would be produced following a meeting in which ‘Tusk urged EU leaders not to support a joint statement with China’.[2]Nevertheless, the 2019 summit resulted in several key outcomes, including a commitment to cooperate on the WTO reform and to update the rules-based trading system which will inevitably allow for the continuation of significant trade flows. At the end of their meeting, both sides pledged to “continue to forge synergies” between the EU’s connectivity strategy and Beijing’s BRI in furtherance of Europe-Asia connectivity.[3]

Despite the EU’s supposed willingness to support China’s ambitious infrastructure and trade development project, there has been a growing sense of unease regarding the programme’s long-term intentions. In a sharp shift from yesterday’s attitudes, EU leaders call for an “end to naivety” regarding Chinese power, noting that China must be considered as a competitor on a global scale. Programmes such as the BRI and the 16 + 1 provide Beijing with a platform to deepen transnational relations, while of course, the appeal of large investments in areas of infrastructure and transport can be hard to resist for those countries which are less economically developed. Thus, whilst the EU has long prided itself on the perceived success of its ‘soft power’, faced with China’s rising influence, the EU must adopt an offensive strategy in order to compete for bilateral infrastructure deals in Africa, Asia and even in its own bloc. In April, the 16+1 became 17+1 with Greece joining the China-CEEC programme, whilst both Italy and Switzerland are the first major Western states to support the BRI – a decision which is causing friction in Brussels. With many European countries now signing-up to such initiatives, it is feared that China is stoking division within the EU whilst the number of Europeans voting for populist national parties has risen by more than 15%.

The increasingly strong rhetoric coming from EU leaders feeds the narrative that many obstacles currently being faced by the bloc, such as growing threats to economic growth, security, and trade are directly linked to Beijing’s global assertiveness. This divide hinders the diplomatic partnership between the regions. Furthermore, as China has honed its technological abilities over the past decades, both the EU and the US have become more wary of cyber-security threats posed by Chinese tech firms. This is especially the case in regards to 5G telecommunications, as Europe is currently debating whether to place a ban on the Huawei 5G network, heeding US warnings that the equipment could be used to incorporate back doors to wage political espionage. A new screening framework has also been approved by the European council regarding foreign direct investments (FDI) into then EU. Whilst the joint statement released following the EU-China Summit focuses on the need to ensure fair competition and equal market access, rising Chinese FDI coming into the EU has garnered much scrutiny. Despite that the new framework has not publicly claimed to target Chinese FDI, concern over increased Chinese FDI in the EU, through programmes such as the BRI and 17+1, has been widely perceived as a major cause of the legislation. This is likely to subject Chinese FDI to market discrimination in the coming years.[4]Nevertheless, the EU and China have committed themselves to strengthening their strategic partnership, and building their economic relationship on transparency and non-discrimination.

With the advance of globalisation and technology, improved cooperation between the EU and China will ultimately lead to increased tourism, partnership agreements, and international connectivity. Discussions regarding the role of China within Europe continue, however, it is evident that the approach of the EU greatly differs to that of the US – isolationist foreign policy.[5]Thus, in times of economic and geopolitical uncertainty, priding itself on unity and solidarity, the EU must remember that it is these qualities that should guide foreign policy engagement with China, and cooperation on global issues.


[1]Joint statement of the 21st EU-China summit, International Summit, European Council Press Release (April 2019) <https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/39020/euchina-joint-statement-9april2019.pdf>.

[2]Herszenhorn, D. M., Von Der Burchard, H., EU scores at China summit with assist from Trump (April 2019) <https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-china-summit-result-assist-donald-trump/>.

[3]Joint statement of the 21st EU-China summit, International Summit, European Council Press Release, April 2019.

[4]Weihua, C., EU’s new FDI screening should not target China, China Daily (March 2019)<http://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201903/08/WS5c81b1aaa3106c65c34ed6e9.html>.

[5]Jie, Y., EU-China relations require a cautious reset, ELN (April 2019) <https://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/commentary/eu-china-relations-require-a-cautious-reset/>.


Danika Schrader