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  • Writer's pictureTatiana Van den Haute

‘Partner, Competitor and Systemic Rival’: the Reasoning Behind the EU’s Ambiguous Stance on China

In recent years, the European Union’s relationship with China has grown ever-more complex, as both entities seek to navigate their shared economic interests and divergent political ideologies in the midst of a tense and dynamic global diplomatic atmosphere.  The past few months have been particularly filled with initiatives from China, the EU and its member states regarding trade deals, agreements and official statements that have left observers with the impression of a lack of consistency in the EU’s stance toward China.  In particular, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s ‘China speech’ back in March outlined “partnership, competition and systemic rivalry” as the EU’s official position toward China.  This begs the question of how such a multifaceted stance affects the continued disunity seen in member states’ China policies. 

By looking at the frameworks the EU and member states use in their engagement with China, as well as the results of “partnership, competition and systemic rivalry” in practice, it will be demonstrated that this approach allows the EU to maintain certain benefits from trade and diplomacy with China whilst also keeping the bloc aligned with European and Western values.  At the same time, the ambiguity within the statement allows Europe to remain strategically disunited in its relations with China.   


Making sense of the EU’s current stance: the frameworks of its engagement with China 


To understand how and why von der Leyen vocalised this particular approach to the EU’s dealings with China, the frameworks by which the EU engages and views China must first be laid out.  The EU is experiencing a shift in its perspective of China in recent years.  In August of 2020, the EU had already released a statement remarking that China “has become gradually more assertive, expansionist and authoritarian”, pointing to COVID-19 as the catalyst for exacerbating this change.  As von der Leyen remarked in her China speech, “China has now turned the page on the era of ‘reform and opening' and is moving into a new era of security and control”, citing Beijing’s Global Security Initiative, state intelligence-gathering operations, and increasing global trade deficits vis-à-vis China as proof of the latter’s increased assertion abroad.  

 The last point has been especially relevant in the recent context of the developing semiconductor trade war, whereby China responded to the US and Netherlands' tightening of export controls on advanced microchip technologies with its own export controls on gallium and germanium (critical minerals used in microchip manufacturing), as well as an increase in production of ‘legacy chips’, or crucial older-generation semiconductors.  This all serves to back up von der Leyen’s point that the CCP envisions “a systemic change of the international order with China at its centre”, meaning that the EU aims to increase its own assertiveness in response. 

A response that has indeed been put into action is the EU’s ‘de-risking’ plan, where von der Leyen emphasises the need to diversify the EU’s supply chain, whilst also collaborating and maintaining “diplomatic stability and open communication” with China, seeing as it is a vital trade partner and global collaborator in addressing challenges such as climate change. At the moment, Europe interacts with China under a ‘27+1’ framework (for the 27 member states plus China), meaning that within foreign policy dialogues, the bloc nominally operates as a single front. However, when it comes to ‘de-risking’, quite a few elements seem to come into odds with the proclaimed strategy.  For one, China has hosted European leaders such as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and French president Emmanuel Macron in March and April respectively, both of which resulted in cooperation or trade agreements.  Moreover, Europe has simultaneously committed itself to ambitious goals when it comes to sustainable energy transitions - something that cannot be done without cooperation with China, which happens to supply 98% of Europe’s rare earth requirements for the manufacturing of technology for wind power generation, hydrogen storage, and batteries.   

While the EU has attempted to decrease this dependency through initiatives like March 2023’s Critical Raw Materials Act (which aims to reduce the EU’s dependence on imports of certain rare earth metals by expanding the bloc’s capacity for extraction, processing, and recycling within the decade), China still provides a significant portion of the world’s clean energy technologies.  It also issues a remarkable number of green bonds, 193 of which have recently been approved by the EU. This is where the ‘partnership’ segment of von der Leyen’s proclamation can be seen to shine through most strongly. 


Reasoning with the de facto ambiguity of ‘partnership, competition and systemic rivalry’ 


It is clear that overall, this proclamation remains ambiguous and hard to properly follow through on - on a unified, European level.  This is due to a complex interplay of areas of interest, including but not limited to human rights questions, democratic values, economic security, the Taiwan question, and China’s lack of denunciation toward Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  EU member states place varying priorities over each of these elements.  France, for instance, has been very forward on economic cooperation with China, with companies (such as BNP Paribas and Huawei) often coming out as big winners when Franco-Chinese dialogue occurs.  Despite iterating his support for the status quo regarding the Taiwan Strait, Macron even mentioned Europe needing to avoid “getting dragged into crises that are not our own,” presumably referring to Taiwan.  Lithuania, on the other hand, has been one of the most outspoken European countries in terms of support for Taiwan - venturing as far as to open a Taiwanese (rather than the usual 'Taipei') Representative Office in Vilnius and removing itself, along with Latvia and Estonia, from the 17+1 China-Eastern European scheme.   

Germany has in itself continuously modified the assertion of its stance and priorities: from a warm reception offered to Chinese Premier Li Qiang during his visit to Berlin in June, to unveiling a harshly-worded ‘China Strategy’ in mid-July describing the restricted market access, exclusion from public procurement, and unequal competition that German companies face in China.  It also lays out the urgent need for de-risking and finding areas for collaboration such as tackling climate action.  It is notable that upon unveiling the strategy, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock promulgated: "China remains a partner, a competitor and systemic rival, but the systemic rival position has gained ground in recent years.” On the Russia crisis, nearly every member state (with the exception of Hungary) has condemned China’s lack of open condemnation as well as alternative peace plan proposals. On the whole, it is clear that Europe’s China stance is far from a cohesive, unified one, with ambivalence found even within a single member state’s statements and foreign policies. 

This ambivalence has found its discontents on both sides of the relationship: MEPs such Hilde Vautmans (Open Vld, Belgium) stated that “we must act united and not let ourselves be played by China’s divide and rule tactics”, while Marie-Pierre Vedrenne (L’Europe Ensemble, France) stressed the need to "act as a strong and autonomous Europe”. EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell, on his part, stressed the need for a united EU approach to China in a different manner: "We cannot speak with one voice as there are multiple voices within the EU, but at least we need to be on the same wavelength," he said.   This statement is truly reflective of the EU’s function at large: while the EU maintains common values and systems, it was not formed and does not necessarily intend for each member state to be united on every issue, especially when it comes to foreign policy.  One must keep in mind that especially when dealing with a giant such as China, member states do not relinquish their foreign policy and economic or security priorities to the Union.  

The implications of disunity on China policy 

However, it can be argued that the EU actually intends to remain non-cohesive and trifold (competitor, partner and rival) on its stance toward China, since this makes the Union able to remain nuanced and open toward all options, especially when it comes to difficult policy decisions.  What is more, the constant internal discussion, implementation and revoking of China strategies and statements is not only a testament to Europe’s unity in diversity, but also a potential strategic strength - akin to the US’s ‘strategic ambiguity’ attitude toward the Taiwan Strait - since it hinders China from formulating longer-term strategies with regard to Europe that may realise the ambitions von der Leyen spoke of, such as increasing  global dependency, dominating supply chains and reformulating the international order to have the ‘Middle Kingdom’ at its centre.   

China’s annoyance with this ambiguity was plainly demonstrated when Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Affairs Minister, called on the European Union to “clarify” the strategic partnership between both sides, and to guard against the EU ‘vacillating’ as well as against the politicisation of economic issues.  It is clear that the EU’s triple strategy and de-risking ambitions have been frustrating to China, and this validates the effectiveness of its approach thus far.  

In conclusion, one can expect continued fluctuations of the Europe’s China agenda, with fitting responses back from China, such as within the tit-for-tat semiconductor trade war with the Dutch, or the productive cooperation on the climate change front on the other hand.  What is important to retain is that despite this apparent and oftentimes confusing disunity, the EU has demonstrated its ability to push forward on a united front when crisis or necessity calls: we observed this when the bloc united in its policy toward Russia post-invasion, or when Germany managed to push through the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI) between the EU and China back in 2020 with unanimous commitment from all member states.  

Overall, the EU’s twenty-seven member states can mould their relationship to China as a ‘partner’, ‘competitor’ and ‘systemic rival’ as they see fit, which will keep China on its toes throughout its engagement with Europe.  This assures us of more deliberation that we give the EU credit for when it comes to foreign and China policy and gives said disunity much more logical grounds. Of course, we can explore this topic further by looking at additional factors such as the importance of the EU market to China, the influence that NATO has on the EU and its states’ China policy, as well as the flexibility that NATO’s military security offers to the continent. 

This article was previously published on The News Lens International on August 24, 2023 (edited).



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