Following the emergence of China’s 1.4 billion people from three years of post-Covid isolation in March, Xi Jinping was formally confirmed for an unprecedented third five-year term as President.
It was highly significant that his first foreign visit, following his new mandate, was to meet Vladimir Putin in Moscow. This reaffirmed both China’s ‘no-limits friendship’ with a leader facing an international arrest warrant for war crimes and Xi’s alliance with an autocratic but ‘subordinate’ Russia, weakened by misjudgements relating to the Ukraine war. China’s opposition to an American-led global order was also confirmed.
Xi’s attempts to portray China as a peacemaker have been undermined by a failure to condemn Russian aggression and its accompanying atrocities, with Chinese media blaming NATO expansionism as the cause of the war. Russia is also avoiding western sanctions by exporting more fuel to China.
Xi’s world vision aligns with Russia’s anti-Western ‘colonialism’ discourse, which plays well with élites in many developing countries. Brazil’s president Lula da Silva, visited Xi in April.
China continues to pursue its own expansionist agenda, in relation to Taiwan and through its global security and development programmes, such as the massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Over the last ten years, the BRI has expanded to more than 140 countries, including in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America. It is now causing a debt crisis and concerns about the erosion of sovereignty, for example, of countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
China’s ambitions have extended into digital, Arctic mining, health and also a 5G-based ‘Internet of Things’ project. These initiatives will shape developing economies and geopolitics in the years ahead, with potentially far-reaching implications for global security.
The US and China: souring relations
Over the last ten years, China’s relations with the US have deteriorated. Early hopes that Xi would want closer integration with a US-led world order have been dashed, with China now being viewed as an autocracy ruled by one man.
As part of its trade war with China, the Trump administration adopted a strategy of disengagement in relation to the Chinese tech giant Huawei and eventually, in 2020, the UK largely followed suit. The US began operating a ‘containment’ policy in relation to China, in all but name.
The Biden administration continues with similar policies, and relations have soured further, following the incident of the downing of the Chinese balloon over the US in February 2023. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled a diplomatic visit scheduled that month.
However, the sheer scale of the Chinese economy, providing the largest share of global exports, makes withdrawal from trade with China unpalatable to many countries.
The EU and China: a balancing act
Europe is currently caught in the middle, between the economic draw of China’s wealth and the US’s pressure for ‘decoupling’ from China, through embargoes (such as that on semiconductors imposed by the US last year). As part of this delicate balancing act, the EU has recently been trying to persuade China to put pressure on Russia to end its war in Ukraine.
In March, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, gave a China-sceptic speech in Brussels, warning that how China interacts with Putin’s war will be a “determining factor” for EU-China relations.
However, the EU’s overall attempt to try to put pressure on Xi in relation to Russia has been effectively ignored, having failed to recognise what China considers to be in its own interests. It was also potentially compromised by EU member states’ trading positions vis à vis China, which is the biggest source of EU imported goods and its third-largest export market.
Following Chinese sanctions against EU member state Lithuania, the European Council and Parliament approved a regulation to protect the EU from economic coercion by third countries, particularly China. Whether EU member states will have the political courage to follow through on such measures, however, is less certain.
Paying homage or keeping distance?
In contrast to the current US stand-off, Presidents Macron and von der Leyen were the latest in a series of European leaders to pay homage at the court of Xi in the last few months. Others included Germany’s Chancellor Scholz, Charles Michel, President of the European Council, and Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish Prime Minister.
In spite of having described the relationship with China as “systematic rivalry”, Chancellor Scholz was accompanied on his visit by a large delegation of industry leaders. President Macron also had more than fifty chief executives travelling with him to Beijing.
On his return journey from China, Macron declared that Europe should not get “caught up in crises that are not ours” which prevent it from building “strategic autonomy”, but failed to recognise the role of NATO in Ukraine. This may reflect a desire by some EU leaders to see a more rapid diplomatic conclusion to the war than seems likely at present, but could also be said to have made an invasion of Taiwan more likely. The Germany and UK governments rapidly sought to publicly distance themselves from these comments.
Other EU leaders, including the impressive von der Leyen, recognise that Europe is dependent upon NATO, and therefore on the US, in relation to sustained support for Ukraine. They also understand that “strategic autonomy” for Europe means avoiding becoming dependent on China for goods and technology, as it was previously on Russia’s oil and gas.
If China is not going to ‘rule the world’ (as predicted by author Martin Jacques in 2009) liberal democracies, while seeking to avoid outright conflicts, need to unite in deterrence of unprovoked aggression and in resisting the aspiration to global economic dominance by an autocracy which does not respect human rights.