While U.S. President Joe Biden has been calling world leaders trying to build an alliance of Western democracies to counter China, Beijing also has been reaching out to the region. Since December, Chinese President Xi Jinping has talked to more than 10 European leaders either by phone or video conference.
By Beijing’s calculation, Washington will never be able to form an effective alliance against China without Europe’s economic and political weight. And Beijing is moving quickly by relying on two of its biggest foreign policy tools: trade and vaccines.
In December, Chinese officials made concessions to the European Union (EU) to secure the EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement (CIA) after seven years of talks. The European Commission called it "the most ambitious agreement that China has ever concluded with a third country."
Last week, China’s leader Xi chaired a virtual summit with more than 10 Central and Eastern European (CEE) leaders, promising to cooperate on vaccine distribution. China also signed 53 business agreements totaling nearly $13 billion. And Beijing promised to import $170 billion worth of goods from CEE over the next five years.
Divide and rule
The transatlantic relationship between the United States and its European allies has been one of the world’s strongest since World War II and it held together throughout the Cold War when facing the threat from the Soviet Union. However, the alliance appears less unified on the issue of collectively pressuring Beijing.
One day after Xi called for multilateralism and abandoning the so-called Cold War mentality during the World Economic Forum in Davos late month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also rejected calls for Europe to pick sides between the U.S. and China.
“I would very much wish to avoid the building of blocs," Merkel told the forum.
"I don’t think it would do justice to many societies if we were to say this is the United States and over there is China and we are grouping around either the one or the other. This is not my understanding of how things ought to be.”
A few days later, French President Emmanuel Macron also said the EU should not gang up on China with the U.S.
“A situation to join all together against China, this is a scenario of the highest possible conflictuality. This one, for me, is counterproductive,” Macron said during a discussion broadcast by Washington-based think tank the Atlantic Council early this month.
Polling indicates European leaders’ views mirror those of their publics. A recent opinion poll by the European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR) found that a majority of Europeans want their country to stay neutral in a conflict between the U.S. and China, with 66% of Germans holding that view. The survey conducted in 11 European countries by the pan-European think tank also found most people believe that China will be more powerful than the U.S. within a decade.
Peter Morici, former director of the Office of Economics at the U.S. International Trade Commission, said that unlike some of the Asian countries that directly face Chinese military threats, Europe is far removed from China’s regional disputes with its neighbors.
While European leaders want Washington to provide security and defense help, they also have to do business with China, Morici told VOA in a telephone interview.
"They recognize China as a systemic threat. They are very worried about China buying up their industry, but yet they export machine tools to China. And so the Germans, they see this as a way of profiting."
Will China succeed?
Gary J. Schmitt, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said that at the government level, China's strategy so far has been relatively successful. Promises of investment and access to the China market have led many governments to put narrow commercial interests ahead of longer-term concerns.
However, it's not clear that Europe will continue to do so, Schmitt said in an interview.
"Chinese behavior domestically and internationally has created a groundswell of negative public views and those negative views are starting to have an impact in the EU parliament and among parliamentarians in various countries," Schmitt noted.
China created the Central and Eastern European “17+1” group in 2012 to promote business and trade relations, but analyst Andreea Brînză, vice president of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific, says until now there has been little to show for China’s promises of investment and infrastructure.
"From my point of view, the 17+1 is a zombie mechanism, kept alive by these annual summits," Brînză told VOA in an email.
Brînză, whose research focuses on China’s geopolitics, pointed out that leaders from six EU countries failed to show up for this year's "17+1" summit, publicly snubbing Xi Jinping.
"They skipped the summit to make a statement and send a message to their allies," she told VOA.
Ivana Karaskova, the founder of China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE) listed the Hong Kong protests, Xinjiang issue and COVID-19 among the reasons these governments decided to participate at a lower level. While members of the EU are clearly signaling a more independent foreign policy, she added in a telephone interview, "it doesn't necessarily mean that it's getting closer to China. Of course not."
In the meantime, the EU statistics agency Eurostat said this week that China became the EU's biggest trading partner in 2020, overtaking the United States. Analysts said China’s economy is now performing at near pre-COVID levels while the rest of the world struggles to cope with the pandemic.