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Profiling relations of European countries with China

As part of the project “China Horizons – Dealing with a Resurgent China” funded through the Horizon Europe research and innovation program, MERICS has developed a database of over 50 indicators with data on Europe’s relations with China, including EU Member States as well as the United Kingdom, focusing on economy, political relations, security, and society. 

The main trends identified through this database are summarized in a series of profiles assessing each countries’ bilateral relations with China in the period from 2019 and 2022. These will in turn feed into an audit of Member States’ and the UK’s resilience vis-à-vis China. MERICS chose to start this assessment with the following countries (sorted by alphabetical order):

Further countries will be added over the next two years. 

This first set of country profiles shows that European countries are going through a phase of rethinking their engagement with China following the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

While becoming more realistic and pragmatic in their dealings with Beijing, their capacity to deal with risks and vulnerabilities often is limited by a dominating debate about economic opportunities. European countries continue to compete for the opportunities to do business with and in China and to attract Chinese investments in Europe.

The cases of France, Germany and Italy highlight the correlation between dense and intense trade and economic relations with a high degree of vulnerabilities. The space for a European offensive agenda vis-a-vis China, pushing its economic and political interests, is shrinking as reflected in the limited European presence in China and the reactive policy engagement.

European perceptions of China are deteriorating. While some countries have taken measures to increase their China-knowledge and capacity, most of them are lagging behind. This limits the ability of countries to proactively develop a China agenda rather than just respond to events, and also it hinders the possibility of the European public opinion in developing a fact-based perception of China.

The main takeaways of these country profiles:

  • There is no return to business as usual in the European approach to engaging China. Through the release of national China strategies or Indo-Pacific strategies or a complete review of bilateral relations, many countries have adjusted their engagement with China. China’s lockdowns during the pandemic, its position on the war in Ukraine and an increasingly assertive behavior in Europe have transformed national debates on China.
  • European countries have become more realistic and pragmatic in dealing with China. The countries considered have embraced the EU’s multifaceted approach. There is a clear perception that countries can increase their trade and economic relations while developing strategies to better protect their economic security, national security and the safety of their citizens. European countries must deal with the question of divergent values with China which have spread across all areas.
  • European countries are fast-tracking their efforts to reduce risks and vulnerabilities vis-à-vis China. From inbound investments to exports, the security implications of economic interactions with China have become increasingly present in the thinking of member states. Chinese coercive measures against European countries and its support for Russia have accelerated national and European efforts to de-risk with a series of non-country specific instruments. This includes, among others, the development of national foreign and direct investment screening mechanisms, 5G regulations, and updated export controls regimes.  
  • Europe’s vulnerabilities lie where economic interdependencies and trade are high. The country profiles show that there is no correlation between the degree of economic integration with China and the capacity to develop defensive instruments and better deal with risks.
  • Taiwan has become a topic for European countries. The case of coercion against Lithuania and European support for Ukraine in its war against Russia have led Taiwan to emerge as an issue in the national debate. China is increasingly sensitive and reactive to European behavior on Taiwan.  
  • European countries have difficulties to address the gap in China knowledge. While several countries have developed national strategies to address the issue, Europe lacks independent China-expertise and capacity. This leads to difficulties at the national level to develop a fact-based view of China. As a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, Chinese tourists and research delegations have deserted Europe, further diminishing direct interactions between the two sides’ civil societies. European perceptions of China in the past four years have been deteriorating.

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This MERICS analysis is part of the project “Dealing with a Resurgent China” (DWARC) which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme under grant agreement number 101061700.

Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.