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Lose-Lose or Win-Win?

China seeks to stabilize relations with European countries amid rising anxiety in the EU over ‘lose-lose’ prospects as geopolitical competition leads to political fragmentation and economic uncertainties

By Yu Xiaodong Updated May.1

Following the Chinese Lunar New Year on February 10, China’s Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi embarked on a weeklong tour through Europe from February 15 to 22, where he visited Germany, Spain, France and Italy. Also serving as a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and the Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, Wang is China’s top diplomat and the highest ranking Chinese official to visit Europe since the 20th CPC National Congress held in October 2022, when China set its vision for development, including foreign relations, for the following five years and the longer term. 

‘Historical Mistake’ 
During his tour in Europe, Wang signaled that China is willing to step up dialogue and cooperation with EU member states, even though the EU has stepped up its “de-risking” measures in recent months.  

Arriving in Paris on February 15, Wang first met with French President Emmanuel Macron and Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Catherine Colonna. During his meeting with Wang, Macron expressed his hopes of strengthening bilateral cooperation to work toward a high-level exchange by the end of the year. Meanwhile, during the China-France Strategic Dialogue, French diplomatic adviser Emmanuel Bonne said that France was ready to take an active part in the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, and would coordinate more closely with China in international affairs. The two sides agreed to expand cooperation in energy, nuclear research, aerospace and space.  

On January 27, 2024, Chinese President Xi Jinping exchanged congratulatory messages with Macron on the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. A series of cultural and tourism events will be held in China and France this year to celebrate the anniversary, such as an exhibition of artworks at Beijing’s Palace Museum, with collections from the Palace Museum and the Palace of Versailles representing historical exchanges between China and France in the 17th and 18th centuries.  

Macron had already made a high-profile state visit to China in April 2023, when he explicitly opposed moves to “decouple” from China, stressing that Europe must reduce its dependency on the US and avoid being dragged into a confrontation between China and the US.  

In Germany, Wang met with Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on February 17. Visiting China in November 2022, Scholz became the first European leader to visit China since the start of the global pandemic and was among the first European leaders to explicitly reject the idea of decoupling from China. During his meeting with Wang, Scholz affirmed that Germany would firmly develop economic and trade relations with China and reiterated that he opposed any form of decoupling.  

On February 17 Wang also met with Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani. While Mattarella emphasized that EU-China cooperation is crucial to tackling global challenges, Tajani stated that Italy looked forward to restarting bilateral cooperation mechanisms as soon as possible, promoting mutual investment and expanding trade.  

In Madrid, Wang met with Spanish King Felipe VI, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares Bueno on February 19. The two sides reiterated their commitment to openness and cooperation and agreed to boost cooperation in areas such as telecommunications, healthcare, electric vehicles and green energy. China also lifted import restrictions on Spanish beef. China suspended beef imports from the EU in 2000 over bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease.  

Wang’s tour to Europe is widely considered to be part of China’s continued efforts to stabilize ties with Europe and to prevent the latter from falling into the orbit of the US in containing China. In his speech at a symposium on China’s foreign relations in Beijing in December 2022, Wang stressed that, “Friendship is the keynote of China’s Europe policy, and cooperation its overarching goal.”  

During a speech delivered at the 60th Munich Security Conference in Germany on February 17, 2024, Wang said that China and Europe “should rule out geopolitical and ideological disturbance and continue defining one another as partners rather than rivals.” Highlighting China’s role as “a stabilizing force” in addressing global hotspot issues, Wang warned that it would be a “historic mistake” to disengage from China in the name of “de-risking.”  

During the China-France Strategic Dialogue held on February 20, Wang warned that “a destabilized and even divided world is in no one’s interest,” reiterating that China regards Europe as “an important pole in the multi-polarization process,” and that “China supports Europe in strengthening its strategic autonomy and holding its future in its own hands.”  

Compared to the largely amicable atmosphere in the meetings between Wang and European leaders, Wang’s meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference (MSC) on February 16 was much more tense, when he called on the US to lift its “illegal unilateral” sanctions on Chinese companies, and warned that any attempts to decouple from China would “ultimately backfire on the US.” Wang reiterated China’s position on the Taiwan question and urged the US to “stop unwarranted harassment and interrogation of Chinese citizens,” according to the Xinhua News Agency.  

Le Choeur Des Polyson, a French children’s choir, performs at an event held by overseas Chinese to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the diplomatic relations between China and France, Paris, January 16, 2024 (Photo by VCG)

A French postal offfcial displays a commemorative postage stamp series for the Year of Dragon released on January 26, 2024 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the diplomatic relations between China and France (Photo by VCG)

Ice sculptures of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and Notre Dame cathedral in Paris stand next to each other at Harbin Ice and Snow World to celebrate the upcoming 60th anniversary of the establishment of the diplomatic relations between China and France, Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, December 23, 2023 (Photo by VCG)

‘Lose-Lose’ Dynamics 
Wang’s European tour was conducted against a backdrop of rising anxiety in Europe as geopolitical competition has led to increasing political fragmentation and economic uncertainties. Not only have the anti-China agenda and interest rate hikes initiated by the US disrupted global supply chains and hammered European economies, the Russia-Ukraine war and the humanitarian crises in Gaza resulting from the Israel-Hamas conflict has also led to divisions both between and within EU member states.  

This sentiment was reflected in the maxim “Lose-Lose?” adopted by the 2024 Munich Security Conference that took place from February 16 to 18. Attracting 900 participants, including some 50 heads of state and government and over 100 ministers, the annual event is the world’s leading forum to debate security affairs.  

“Lose-Lose?” is also the title of this year’s MSC report, which warns that political fragmentation of the world could lead to a downward spiral of “self-perpetuating rivalries” and give rise to “lose-lose” dynamics, pushing governments to focus more on relative gains rather than absolute gains, and mutually beneficial cooperation. Cautioning that “relative-gains” thinking will be “unavoidable” in a much more competitive geopolitical environment, the report called for European countries to “revive positive-sum cooperation.”  

“This year, the atmosphere in Munich was one of particular gravity. With two wars on its doorstep, and many other powder kegs all over the world, everyone was finally aware that Europe is in danger,” wrote Josep Borrell, EU’s top diplomat in a blog post on the official website of the EU’s diplomatic service on February 25.  

Lamenting that “the era of Western dominance has indeed definitely ended,” Borrell warned that “if the current global geopolitical tensions continue to evolve in the direction of ‘the West against the Rest,’ Europe’s future will be bleak.  

In the past months, there has been noticeable divergences between European countries and the US regarding global issues. As the US faced growing isolation due to its pro-Israel stance regarding the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the EU has become increasingly uncomfortable about its alignment with the US on the issue. In his blog, Borrell highlighted that “many in the ‘Global South’ accuse us of ‘double standards,’” and warned that the problem cannot be addressed with just words. “We must make a massive effort to win back the trust of our partners,” Borrell said. 

Even on the Russian-Ukraine conflict, an issue over which the EU and the US are firmly aligned, the prospect that former president Donald Trump could be re-elected is a major concern for European leaders. Trump’s remarks that he might pull the US out of NATO have caused significant anxiety in Europe in the security realm, and the failure of the US Congress to pass a new aid package to Ukraine has led to major frustration.  

Europe also finds itself in a dilemma regarding how to engage with China. “Europe and the US are also not entirely aligned on issues regarding China,” wrote Sun Chenghao, a research fellow at the Center for International Security and Strategy of Tsinghua University in an opinion piece published on chinausfocus.com on February 21. Sun, who participated in this year’s Munich Security Conference, said during a session discussing “Aligning Transatlantic Tech Governance” that European panelists directly challenged US panelists’ opposition to transferring AI technology to China, arguing that China is indispensable in promoting global governance on AI.  

Europe’s rising anxiety over the Washington-initiated political fragmentation and its apparent reluctance to completely align with the US did not go unnoticed by US officials attending the MSC.  

When asked during a public forum at the MSC session whether the US was being challenged in Europe as US-China tensions have led to greater fragmentation, Blinken said “if you’re not at the table in the international system, you’re going to be on the menu,” adding that Washington had “re-engaged multilaterally.”  

Blinken’s comments immediately drew strong criticism from China’s State media for applying the “law of the jungle” to its championed “rules-based international order.” Speaking with the South China Morning Post, Josef Gregory Mahoney, a professor of politics and international relations at the Shanghai-based East China Normal University, said Blinken’s remarks were a warning to US allies, especially some European countries which had sought more stable relations with China. 

“The targets of the expression are definitely European countries who’ve tried to hedge to some extent in their relationship with China... and other countries, realizing that following the American strategy of so-called de-risking or decoupling will only leave them reduced,” said Mahoney, as quoted in the SCMP article published on February 24.  

Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister and director of the Offfce of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, Munich, Germany, February 16, 2024 (Photo by VCG)

Cooperation Potentials 
From China’s perspective, the rising anxiety over “lose-lose” dynamics within the EU suggests that the bloc still shares common interests in global affairs with China, as China has long been advocating win-win cooperation.  

In response to a question regarding the MSC report during a press conference held in Córdoba, Spain following his meeting with Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares Bueno on February 18, Wang Yi said that “lose-lose” dynamics are driving zero-sum mindsets, a decoupling agenda and bloc confrontation. Without directly mentioning the US, he added that “certain countries are forging various ‘small circles’ and ‘clubs,’ creating division and forcing and even coercing other countries to pick sides, which seriously disrupts the international community’s efforts to address global challenges and undermines the cornerstone of world peace and development.”  

Wang said that as more and more countries have realized that a lose-lose scenario must be avoided, China and Europe should work together to “promote common development while pursuing our own development.” “Win-win is the goal we should pursue together,” Wang added. 

Speaking to the media when he wrapped up his tour to Europe on February 22, Wang said that he felt that “there is increasing rational perceptions of China in Europe,” and that Europeans believe China’s development is in line with the logic of history, which Europe should not fear or reject.  

For many Chinese analysts, although Europe has adopted a de-risking agenda against China, the foundation for mutual cooperation remains solid. “Although there is rising protectionism within the EU, the European economy still depends on external markets and the EU leadership still supports multilateralism, which means that China and the EU have the potential to develop a mutually complimentary relationship in the era of new globalization,” Wang Yiwei, professor and director of the Institute of International Affairs and director of the Center for EU Studies at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, told NewsChina. But Wang Yiwei warned that as the European Parliament elections are due in June, it is unlikely that the China-EU relationship would see a major improvement within the year.  

Wang Yiwei’s caution is echoed by Jian Junbo, associate professor at the Center for China-EU Relations with Shanghai-based Fudan University. Jian told NewsChina that although China and Europe share common interests in fostering a multi-polar world and safeguarding the openness of the global economy, they have not yet formed a fundamental consensus on the construction of the future international order. Moreover, the Russia-Ukraine war and the China-US rivalry will continue to have a negative impact on China-Europe relations in the foreseeable future, Jian added.  

“China cannot rely on its engagement with the EU to develop China-Europe relations,” Jian said, “Instead, China should adopt different strategies tailored to the specific situations of different European countries, and engage with each country in a pragmatic manner, to promote the stable and robust development of overall China-Europe relations.”  

Speaking at a press conference on China’s foreign policy on the sidelines of the 14th National People’s Congress (NPC) held in Beijing on March 7, Wang Yi said that it is “definitely unacceptable that certain countries must be at the table while others can only be on the menu,” referring to Blinken’s comments.  

Addressing the China-EU relationship, Wang Yi reiterated that China seeks to build smoother ties and closer partnerships with the EU. “As long as China and the EU engage in mutually beneficial cooperation, no attempt to create bloc confrontation will succeed; as long as China and Europe stay committed to openness and win-win, deglobalization will not prevail,” Wang said.