For many years, the unique western concept of peace, prosperity, freedom, democracy and the rule of law was an uncontested role model worldwide. As a transformative power, “the West” shaped and inspired many societies around the globe. But in Europe, too, we are now seeing clearly that “change through rapprochement” is not the only game in town. Countries such as Russia and China are increasingly also pursuing their strategic interests on European territory – partly openly, partly covertly. These countries’ growing influence is ultimately also a sign of our own weakness, as the European narrative has lost a great deal of its credibility and appeal recently following multiple crises and social upheaval in parts of our continent.
China is currently the only player on the international stage with its own truly global geostrategic concept. As the US withdraws from global affairs under President Donald Trump, President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy is on the rise as an instrument of “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era”. The huge geostrategic project, the Belt and Road Initiative, plays an important role in underpinning China’s leadership aspirations.
China is also endeavouring to increase its impact on policies, business and public opinion in Germany and the other EU Member States. In order to do so, it is making use of a very wide range of channels and instruments, as a widely acclaimed study by the MERICS and Global Public Policy Institute think tanks recently showed. However, the aim of China’s influence on European territory is not to destabilise, let alone destroy, the EU as a whole. On the contrary, a politically and economically stable Europe is most certainly in China’s interests as an oasis of calm in a turbulent world and as a market.
The European business sector has also benefited from China’s massive expansion of its business interests on the continent in recent years. We are seeing an enormous increase in Chinese direct investments in the EU, not least in infrastructure projects, but also in key technologies. And yet Chinese investments still only account for a fraction of what the EU itself invests in Central and Eastern European Member States, for example. In other words, the impression that China has long since replaced the EU as the main investor is false. At the same time, the lure of doing business with China can severely challenge Europe’s foundation of values at times. Some EU partners are even willing to undermine European human rights policy for a lucrative bilateral deal with China.
How should the EU respond to Chinese influence? What can we do to ensure we do not find ourselves paralysed like the proverbial rabbit when faced with an apparently ever more powerful Asian snake? China also has every right to pursue its geostrategic goals with determination in Europe. We may well complain, but we Europeans really need to explain why the EU still does not have its own strategy.
With a view to China, a pan-European strategy is essential. We finally need a “one-Europe policy”. We need to speak with a joint European voice and we cannot allow ourselves to be divided. Around 70 different dialogue formats are currently taking place between Germany and China. However, it is also clear that the more united a stance we as the EU take towards China, the more effectively and credibly we will be able to represent our interests.
That is why we need to make the current bilateral dialogue formats far more European, not only with regard to trade and business, but above all as regards our fundamental values and principles. The EU’s Human Rights Dialogue with China, which was launched in 1995, needs a genuine reboot. We must make clear that peace, prosperity and security depend on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The priority of our “one-Europe policy” must be to leave no doubt that our fundamental values are not up for discussion as far as we Europeans are concerned.
At the same time, Europe must become a driving force for innovation once again if it wants to continue being a role model and partner with the same say as others in the world. To this end, we need to up our game as regards education, research and development. Although China is currently making use of any leeway we give it through our own weakness and hesitancy, it has enough problems of its own at home. For example, its economic structure is simply not sustainable enough. China still depends on Europe for its economy’s urgently needed upgrade.
Initially, we may find China’s growing influence in Europe unsettling. The European model faces tough international competition from other socio-political concepts. Other systems now also promise economic success and security – but with no guarantee of freedom, democracy and rule of law that are so characteristic of Europe. We must face this global competition assertively. If we preserve and defend our European DNA, absolutely no one will have any reason to fear China.