Compared to its American ally, the EU has traditionally favored a more friendly bilateral relationship with China. Though the nations have their share of conflict, relations between the two are generally less inflammatory than that of the US and China.
All about the economics
The relationship between the EU and China can be traced back to the early 19th-century Qing Dynasty, when informal trade relations were initially established. More formal diplomatic relations took root between the EU and the People’s Republic of China in 1975, when leadership from both regions acknowledged the need for cooperation amidst international Cold War tensions. Though often on opposite sides of the table on global political issues, particularly regarding NATO-related expansion and intervention activity, the two continued to maintain a mutually beneficial economic relationship, wherein China’s meteoric rise ultimately transformed it into the EU’s largest trade partner.
2020: Stirring the proverbial pot of EU-China relations
While the two nations’ ties often appear amicable on the surface, 2020 has stirred the pot in terms of diplomatic relations. The annual EU-China summit, usually the cornerstone of policy discussions on topics including issues of climate change and bilateral trade, adopted an online format amid pandemic fears and political ill-will on issues like Hong Kong’s autonomy and Xinjiang’s human rights violations. This summit was hosted by The EU-Strategic Agenda for Cooperation, compounded on its 2016 predecessor, and informs policy changes and a broad strategic outlook for the Eurozone.
The 2016 agenda emphasized a joint commitment to promoting global public goods on top of creating a “level playing field” through the enforcement of trade laws. However, a main concern cited in an audit of the 2020 agenda was the EU’s approach to China’s state-driven investment strategy and the risks that it may pose to achieving a “level playing field” between the nations. On the other side, the EU expressed concerns over how its firms were being treated in the Chinese market and their feelings of frustration over a lack of transparency and equal treatment.
The EU seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard-place as its alliance with the US and its trade relationship with China is increasingly at odds. As a close ally commonly aligned with the US on global political and economic issues, the EU is also becoming more wary of a rising China, citing it as a strategic rival. All things considered, as the relationship between China and the US continues to deteriorate, a door has swung open for the EU to offer a stable Western relationship for China in exchange for significant trade-related benefits with the bloc’s largest trading partner. Whether or not the two countries manage to address the outstanding concerns remains to be seen.