Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 30, 2024

Not narratives, not rhetoric: what the EU needs is to wake up from its strategic slumber and act on its China addiction

Begging will not de-risk Brussels from Beijing

Source Image: Nikkei Asia

A new report by the European Union (EU) Chamber of Commerce in China and the China Macro Group, yawning its way between decoupling and de-risking, will be splashed in the media, discussed ad nauseam in think tank convenings, laughed at in Beijing, and laid to rest in the garbage bins of empty rhetoric. Titled “Riskful Thinking: Navigating the Politics of Economic Security”, the report is undergirded by the naive assumption that its 11 recommendations for China will be implemented.

The report effectively resorts to begging for China to adhere to the rules-based order. It recommends that Beijing steer clear of excessive self-reliance but allows considerable latitude for discussing the scope of the word ‘excessive’. It implores the world’s second-largest economy to increase transparency on laws that limit market access, blissfully forgetful of the opaque regime that helped incubate such laws in the first place. Then it urges China to define a common language on de-risking, ignorantly assuming that Chinese polity serves the interests of the EU.

Europe is being suffocated by the rules-based order of its own making—Beijing has weaponised the EU's rules against itself, thereby asphyxiating its companies, consumers, and citizens.

Trade protectionism, Beijing’s erratic policy shifts, and the quest for localisation find themselves among the other appeals. In a cringeworthy moment, China is even requested to “Refrain from punishing companies for the actions of their home governments.”

Nothing in what is sought is inappropriate. Rather, what is bothersome is that it is being voiced in a 34,000-word, 56-page report that sees a US$19.35-trillion large grouping of 27 democratic nations bend before a US$18.56-trillion authoritarian regime. Besides an amused smile from the Chairman of Everything, Xi Jinping, for exposing the EU’s toxic dependence, this report will achieve little else.

On the other hand, the seven recommendations for the EU, may—and it is a big ‘may’—wake the grouping, and perhaps even the continent, from its strategic slumber. The most important among these is the one around rethinking supply chains of critical inputs and export control frameworks. Yet, here too, the report is unable to imagine a world without China. “Continue to proactively engage with China and reject calls for disengagement,” it recommends. Further, it seeks to remind the actors in this game—chambers of commerce, China-focused think tanks, and businesses—about de-risking but fails to define why this should be paid heed to this time around.

Finally, the report offers nine recommendations for European businesses. Being an industry chamber, some of them are better phrased and informed. For instance, it seeks to pre-empt legislative changes and political risk. It calls for conducting detailed supply chain reviews and risk assessments, as well as intensifying due diligence to determine exposure to potential shocks. It urges companies to monitor areas of risk such as public backlash or sudden changes in market conditions. But when it urges corporations to be prepared for emerging global regulations, it neglects that all ‘global’ regulatory actions are enfeebled by a Beijing that regularly refuses to abide by them.

The recent report sees a US$19.35-trillion large grouping of 27 democratic nations bend before a US$18.56-trillion authoritarian regime. Besides an amused smile from the Chairman of Everything, Xi Jinping, for exposing the EU’s toxic dependence, this report will achieve little else. 

Overall, the report, like several before it, illustrates the risks that European businesses face in China and assumes that a benevolent Beijing knows the problems and will do something to fix them. Worse, it details for the benefit of China exactly how dependent the EU is on its markets, its investments, and its manufacturing.

Given that collective economic security shaped by national issues is a subset of collective national security designed for a common cause, carving out an agenda of mutualism will be impossible for the EU. It is not the same as the EU coming together and taking a collective defence/security stand against Russia at the time of conflict (and not prior to it), for instance.

China is appraised as a commercial venture, and it is unlikely that commercial entities will bear the cost of national security until it is too late and too high for them and others. And then they will; just ask the German Industry about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But most businesses work on hindsight and not foresight when it comes to security issues as they have a false belief in their ability to shape outcomes.

When the Stuttgart-based Mercedes-Benz, for instance, decides to deepen investments in China, despite the EU scrambling for an exit strategy, it shows how strongly the corporate tail of a company is wagging the national security dog of an entire continent. That 19.67 percent of the Mercedes stock is held by two Chinese companies (9.98 percent by BAIC Group, and 9.69 percent by Li Shufu) is not only influencing decisions in one of EU’s most high-profile companies but also weakening the EU hand on strategic affairs between Beijing and Brussels. Worse, instead of finding ways to get out of China, the report states that European companies find that decoupling, i.e. “detaching completely from the Chinese market” from China is a risk.

The impassioned quest for benevolence from the Emperor seems to be the European approach towards China. Transborder calls for ‘alms’ must not pass off as strategy—they are not.

So, while China has weaponised everything, from trade and investments to technology and culture, the EU remains trapped in the pincer of its strategic-commercial constraints on the one side and the rise of ‘wokism’ with a Confucius colour on the other. It is being suffocated by the rules-based order of its own making—Beijing has weaponised the EU's rules against itself, thereby asphyxiating its companies, consumers, and citizens. Against these democratic constraints and strategic confusions, the Beijing model is unambiguous in its direction and its action.

Take a step back and what you see from the Beijing-Brussels midpoint—New Delhi—is a feeble EU approach to China. Blissful in its strategic slumber, lying on the bed of post-World War II prosperity, with eyes wide shut, Brussels remains addicted to Chinese goods, Chinese markets, and Chinese manufacturing. It appears nothing will change, even as Beijing runs circles around the EU, watching it squirm, and awaiting the next round of periodic rhetoric, even as it plans a deeper dive into the strategic vitals of the EU. The impassioned quest for benevolence from the Emperor seems to be the European approach towards China. Transborder calls for ‘alms’ must not pass off as strategy—they are not.

From the vantage of New Delhi, it is not only the possibility of Russia joining the dragon’s choir that is imminent and worrisome; it is rather the European opera halls hosting this choir that present a clear and present danger. The most important learning from this document for those reading it from outside is scary. If the lesson of its energy dependence on Russia, and the consequent decapitating impact on its security in recent years, has not taught the EU ‘Strategy 101’, nothing ever will. Isn’t it time to reconcile to this simple fact: that the EU is a non-strategic actor and, without radical rethinking—always will be?


Gautam Chikermane is Vice President at the Observer Research Foundation. 

Samir Saran is the President of the Observer Research Foundation.

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Authors

Gautam Chikermane

Gautam Chikermane

Gautam Chikermane is Vice President at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. His areas of research are grand strategy, economics, and foreign policy. He speaks to ...

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Samir Saran

Samir Saran

Samir Saran is the President of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India’s premier think tank, headquartered in New Delhi with affiliates in North America and ...

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