BEIJING – Following the Cold War, relations between Europe and the US gradually became more distant, as Europe sought to develop a more independent position, accelerated by the Iraq war. This new identity found expression in Europe’s relationship with China, which was generally closer than that between the US and China. The iconic symbol of this new relationship was the former German chancellor Angela Merkel, who reached a close understanding with China based on her prioritization of a geo-economic relationship between Germany and China.
However, the growing distance between the US and Europe and the warming of China-Europe relations came to an abrupt end with the Ukraine war. It was as if the trends over the previous 30 years had suddenly been erased from history. There was a massive wave of support across the whole of Europe, west and east, left and right, for Ukraine and against Russia. It was somehow as if we were back in the Cold War: Europe once more looked to the US for leadership, Russia was denounced, Ukrainian refugees were welcomed, higher military expenditure was enthusiastically backed, NATO was lauded, and Finland and Sweden applied to join. The verities and certainties of the Cold War appeared to have been restored, the US and Europe shoulder to shoulder, Europe once more at the center of the world. That was Europe in 2021. As the war dragged on seemingly endlessly, however, Europe began to ask two obvious questions: when is it going to end and how might it end?
At the beginning of the war, there was speculation in Europe that perhaps China could help achieve a ceasefire, but the very idea was soon buried in the fervor of support for Ukraine. One year on, however, the idea has been revived, encouraged partly by China’s remarkable role in bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran together. If such a rapprochement was possible, then why not a ceasefire in the Ukraine war too, with China playing a role as broker? Slowly Europe began to come to terms with the evident impasse in the war.
In truth, Europe’s disappearance, its wholesale acquiescence in America’s agenda for the Ukraine war, combined with its willingness to support, at least in part, the US’ growing assault on and demonization of China, reminded us that Europe’s embrace of independence and its willingness to distance itself from Atlanticism, remains fragile and contested. We should not be surprised. Europe has looked westward across the Atlantic for several centuries. Its relationship with America has very deep roots and still exercises a powerful gravitational pull.
Yet the world has moved on and changed profoundly. The US is not what it was. China is transformed. The developing world is hugely more important than it was. Europe might have thought it was again at the center of the world, but the refusal of so many countries to take sides and impose sanctions on Russia has been a profound wake-up call: the world has changed beyond recognition, power has moved elsewhere, and the West is a pale shadow of what it was.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to China, along with Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, exposed for all to see the divisions within Europe. Far from seeking, in the manner of the US, to cancel Europe’s relationship with China, Macron affirmed China’s centrality to any settlement of the Ukraine conflict, emphasized that Europe should retain its independence from the US by pursuing a strategy of strategic ambiguity, and argued that “being an ally does not mean being a vassal.” To emphasize his positivity toward China and his determination to do business, he was accompanied by a delegation of 50 business leaders and concluded a series of wide-ranging deals.
In contrast, von der Leyen struck a far more negative attitude, laying emphasis on “de-risking” – whatever that might mean – Europe’s trade with China, urging greater vigilance in protecting European interests in its relationship with China, and arguing China’s interactions with Russia “will be a determining factor for EU-China relations.” Europe is patently divided in its attitude toward China. Both Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are in favor of positive engagement and cooperation with China. The Eastern European countries, on the other hand, are strongly Atlanticist, even more because of the Ukraine war. As always, France and Germany will be the key to whatever direction the Europe Union decides to take.
It is worth noting one extraordinary difference between American and European attitudes toward China. While hardly any US leaders have visited Beijing in recent times, there has been a seemingly non-stop stream of European leaders anxious to talk with their Chinese counterparts; the most recent being Macron and von der Leyen, and immediately prior to that the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, and, rather earlier, Scholz in late November. Clearly European leaders recognize the importance of dialogue with China which, in the present Western mood of negativity toward China, is a positive. Talking is better than silence; though, to recall Confucius, actions are better than words.
The author is a visiting professor at the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University and a senior fellow at the China Institute, Fudan University. Follow him on Twitter @martjacques. [email protected]