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China’s efforts to understand Europe remain a work in progress

We instinctively understand others through projection: by assuming they think and feel like us. Countries often make the same mistake in their foreign policy. At the heart of China’s relations with Europe over the past two years lies a cognition gap: its foreign policy elite underestimated the extent of European support for Ukraine.

China’s international relations experts, dominated by a strain of realism that emphasises economic interests and power above values and political culture, largely assumed that the Ukrainians wouldn’t put up much of a fight. When they did, they assumed Europe wouldn’t want to pay for it or cut its energy dependence on Russia. As a result, Chinese elites also underestimated the damage done by Xi Jinping’s “limitless” friendship with Vladimir Putin to Beijing’s foreign relations.

These elites have since come to understand the depth of European support for Ukraine. But they now explain it through the “return of ideology” in Europe. “The extent of the current bout of ‘re-ideologisation’ is more serious than that in the cold war,” warned Jiang Feng, the party secretary of Shanghai International Studies University in an essay last year, saying it had become a “confrontation at any cost”, for which “Germany would rather break off its own arm”.

The dominant Chinese narrative says that ideology has confounded European abilities to assess their true interests. For example, Premier Li Qiang’s remarks on his first European tour last month suggested that he believes European companies would have no interest in de-risking their supply chains if it were not for the politicisation of the issue. But one person’s ideology is another’s principled belief. And if there is, indeed, a driving ideology behind European support for Ukraine, it is the value of peace, sovereignty and collective self-defence.

Europeans can call an invasion an invasion. China’s historic suspicion of Nato means that its narrative has to be similar to that of the Russians: Nato is the aggressor, threatens Russia’s existence through eastward expansion, and provoked Moscow into a war of self-defence. To the average Chinese person, the salience of the 1999 US bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade during the Nato operation against Yugoslavia is vastly higher than the salience of Ukrainian sovereignty.

Since China reopened its borders in January after the end of its zero-Covid policy, a succession of political figures, diplomats and academics (often, in China, the three groups are elided) have travelled to Europe in an attempt to discover its thinking. Last year the Chinese narrative was one of Europeans sleepwalking into economic chaos. Now, Chinese observers believe they have an opportunity to weaken European alliances on Ukraine.

I raised the topic during a recent Chinese embassy gathering in London between journalists and Chinese academics. One, Zhang Shuhua, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, ventured that the extent of European support for Kyiv lay in the “ideas of politicians about democracy versus autocracy . . . but is Ukraine a democracy? Is it controlled by outside forces, or an oligarchy? This is debatable.” He added that some western politicians wanted to use the war as a pretext to topple Putin. This ideological approach to geopolitics, he said, is not good for world peace.

The framing of a clash of systems is deeply troubling to China, which “wants a system where autocracies feel safe, rather than unsafe,” says Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute. But this framing is more American than European: Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has captured it well in speeches to the US, describing aid to Ukraine as an “investment in global security and democracy”.

Last month, China’s Li chose Europe as the destination of his first overseas trip, and softened Beijing’s habitually frosty language when talking to German businesses about “de-risking”. But the softness will not last. Beijing sees Europe as diplomatically useful only to the extent that it can be drawn away from the US. As a result, China’s European charm offensive rests on a strategy of divide and conquer.

Beijing sees France as a prime target for this effort: President Emmanuel Macron caused consternation in European capitals when he remarked, in relation to Taiwan, that Europe must not be caught up in crises that are “not our own”. But what Macron may not realise is that China does not see Ukraine as “of Europe’s own”, and expects solidarity on the defence effort to splinter over time. Whether it does is down to Europeans to decide.

Source: Financial Times