Bad cop in Brussels: How the European Commission is driving the China narrative – again

Numerous European leaders are beating a path to Beijing’s door. ECFR Asia director Janka Oertel and the German Marshall Fund’s Andrew Small reflect on European wishful thinking, clever tactical manoeuvres, and long-term strategic choices.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a media conference at the end of an EU China summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Friday, April 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a media conference at the end of an EU China summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Friday, April 1, 2022
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Olivier Matthys

AS: What message do Macron and von der Leyen have for Beijing with their joint visit?

JO: Well, at least the message that von der Leyen wants to send was made crystal-clear in her speech on EU-China relations that she made just days before the journey to Beijing. She gave an exceptionally sharp and pretty bleak assessment of where she sees the Chinese Communist Party’s priorities: security and control, interdependence only as a means of leverage, close relations with Moscow, and an overall hardening of China’s strategic posture. Even if Macron disagrees with the clarity of this message, it will put some limitations on what he can do and say when travelling to Beijing with her – or he would risk undercutting his own message of European unity. Regardless of the von der Leyen speech, though, the illusion of getting China on board to solve the Russia problem has been very much alive not only around Macron, but also in other capitals and even among the EU institutions. Von der Leyen is pushing the consensus forward to the very edge of the bearable for the EU27. The commission did this before – its Strategic Outlook in 2019, which coined the partner, competitor, rival trinity – was similarly ‘edgy’ at the time.  

JO: But is the decision for Macron and von der Leyen to travel to Beijing together a smart one – even if they may not agree 100 per cent on the analysis and the way forward?

AS: Yes. It gives Macron a credible claim that his visit is on behalf of Europe, not just France, and it’s a constructive way of one-upping German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s recent solo trip. Von der Leyen is able to show to Xi Jinping that he can’t just expect to cut side-deals with Paris and Berlin and circumvent the European Union. Member states that are sceptical of Macron’s handling of Vladimir Putin and Xi will be reassured by von der Leyen’s presence. The Biden administration, with which she has established a trusted relationship, will also be more confident that G7 unity on important issues is being preserved instead of fearing any fallout from a Macron solo.

JO: Interesting – so do you think Macron really believes that China can, and would, play a constructive role on Ukraine?

AS: In recent weeks, China has been simulating a peace initiative for Ukraine, though barely going through the motions – as we saw in Moscow, Xi is not trying very hard to pretend that it’s real. Some European policymakers nonetheless think it is useful to simulate believing in it. This is partly for tactical reasons. There is an advantage in demonstrating both that all avenues are being exhausted and that Beijing is not acting in good faith. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky himself used the announcement of China’s Ukraine position paper to say that he wants to meet with Xi to talk about the proposals, some aspects of which he said he was open to. Calling the Chinese leadership’s bluff is something European leaders can do too, pushing Beijing on specific elements of the peace initiative proposals and ensuring that there is no room for the Chinese government to claim that its efforts were rejected out of hand.

JO: Okay, this is the benign interpretation. What would be a more cynical one?

AS: The approach certainly provides an excuse for Europeans to avoid making some difficult choices about China policy on the grounds that “we need China on Ukraine.” It also provides political cover for dressing up commercial deals as constructive ‘engagement.’ In addition, there are European leaders who labour under the delusion that Beijing’s statements make a difference to Moscow’s nuclear strategy. The push during Scholz’s visit and at the last G20 summit to get Xi to repeat boilerplate Chinese positions on the threat and use of nuclear weapons made sense at the time, but there have since been some wildly inflated claims about its impact on Russia’s behaviour. Serious Chinese analysts don’t believe it makes any difference. Macron is arguably in a different category – he seems to believe in his personal capacity to influence other political leaders’ calculations, as we’ve seen before with Putin and Donald Trump. His rather mixed track record does not seem to be deterring him from trying again with Xi. At worst, the effect of all this can be to create the impression for China that its relationship with Russia can be used as leverage over Europe, rather than European leaders simply making clear to Beijing that the current trajectory of China-Russia relations is likely to further damage its relations with Europe.

AS: Do you think that Europeans have wrestled hard enough yet with the possibility of Chinese military assistance to Russia?

JO: No. In recent weeks, whenever we have spoken to European policymakers they were mostly looking at the risk of Chinese arms deliveries to Russia through the angle of potential US sanctions on China and American requests for Europeans to replicate them. It seems not yet to have occurred to them that it would be important for Europe independently to build a credible deterrent against China further enhancing Russia’s fighting capabilities. Although the recent visit to Beijing by the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, seems to indicate that there is an attempt to coordinate the European message on Ukraine, it is not entirely clear what Europe’s own red line for Chinese support for Russia is and what the consequences of overstepping that would be. European leaders need to drive home an absolutely clear message to the Chinese government about their own security interests. To be clear, Europeans should not want to see China arming Russia to help win the war in Ukraine. And they should be incredibly clear that, whatever Washington does or does not do, that Europe is willing to act on this by itself.

AS: How great do you currently think the risk is that China provides lethal aid? How do you interpret Xi’s visit to Moscow in that context?

JO: The risk is real. It depends on how the war evolves, but one should not underestimate how much Beijing is already doing to help Moscow sustain its ability to continue fighting – economically, financially, diplomatically, and through dual-use support. Xi’s recent visit to Russia underscored the level of backing and the level of mutual interest. For European security, it is long overdue for the EU to take the China-Russia relationship seriously, to acknowledge that it is here to stay, and to understand its long-term consequences.

AS: So where does all this leave the EU approach to China? Von der Leyen’s speech was very clear but there has been some confusing messaging from other European leaders in the last week. And what will this translate into in practice?

JO: The problem is that, while the language on China has continued to evolve in Europe, the policies themselves have not changed in accordance with the scale of the problem and the timeframe required. The German economy is a good example, where overall dependence is still growing. The de-risking approach that von der Leyen set out this week will become harder and more costly the longer it takes to align policy with words. The current spate of visits is the embodiment of this – they could be missions to make clear demands, lay down red lines, operationalise the changed economic thinking. But the messaging remains murky. This means that the Chinese government doesn’t really believe in the attitude shift yet – to Beijing, large parts of Europe still look like they are up for grabs and out for a good business deal.

JO: In that context maybe one last question to you: Do you think the de-risking notion – which gives a nod to the German chancellor, even if von der Leyen’s interpretation of this de-risking is much more aggressive – will be taken up? Will this become the new consensus?

AS: Von der Leyen’s framing is already situated inside the new European consensus on these questions. Even if it’s at the edge of this at the moment, especially in terms of what European leaders are actually willing to say in public, it is likely to be at the centre of where that consensus is moving. The speech may even help to get it there faster. The commission president’s pitch certainly isn’t just about cutting back economic ties indiscriminately: part of the concept is that if you de-risk and stress-test effectively, you also create some predictability for other ‘non-risky’ economic interactions outside of the most extreme scenarios. The commission can partly define the consensus on what all this will mean in practice, and get out ahead of some of the slower-moving member states, by doing the analytical leg-work and modelling on economic security questions; as she indicated, at least some of this is already under way. But Europe still lags behind other major economic players, especially Japan and the United States, in articulating its understanding of economic security. The real goal should not just be to provide precision for how the EU itself should think about de-risking but to influence the terms of the wider debate. Europe can’t achieve predictability or get out of reactive mode, however, if it clings to a view of trade relations that no longer bears any relation to how economic and political conditions in China are changing and how other actors are changing in response. Some European leaders are readier to face up to that than others.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Asia programme
Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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