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A Widening Rift: Why China is losing popularity in Europe

Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, on the left, shaking hands with Xi Jinping, President of the People's Republic of China at Diaoyutai State Guest House for the 18th EU-China Summit in Beijing in July 12, 2016.Source: Flickr/ European External Action Services

Callum Irving

In November last year, the German Minister of Defence, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, announced plans to station a German frigate in the Indo-Pacific region. Explaining the move, Kramp-Karrenbauer made clear that it was motivated by a desire to curb Chinese influence in the region, saying:

“We do not turn a blind eye on unequal investment conditions, aggressive appropriation of intellectual property, state-subsidised distortion of competition or attempts to exert influence by means of loans and investments.”

This move from Germany is symptomatic of a recent trend across international politics of increased European pushback against China.

As Germany’s announcement shows, China's aggressive expansion in the South China Sea is one area of concern for European states. However, other issues have served to drive a wedge between China and Europe. At the June 22, 2020 EU-China Annual Summit, talk of human rights, cybersecurity, and Hong Kong’s national security law stoked tensions. China also refused to finalise the Common Agreement on Investment, in which the EU was pushing for increased market access in China and decreased subsidies for Chinese state-owned enterprises.

2020 marked a new low for EU-China relations. Until recently, China maintained a positive overall relationship with most European states. In March 2019, President Xi Jinping completed a tour of several European states, which saw Italy sign up to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and France sign a multi-billion dollar trade deal with China.

However, the last few years have also seen a widening rift in EU-China relations. In 2019, the European Commission, while acknowledging that China is a “cooperation partner” in some areas, took the step of labelling China as an “economic competitor” and a “systemic rival”. Even those states with closer ties to China have spoken out against Beijing on certain issues. BRI signatory Italy was among those to criticise the new security laws in Hong Kong and adopted a parliamentary resolution showing its support for the Hong Kong protesters.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only served to further deepen European governments' apprehensions about China, as healthcare systems in states like Italy and France became overwhelmed and economies suffered due to lockdowns. China’s ‘mask diplomacy’, which saw large quantities of medical supplies donated or sold to European states, seems to have further alienated rather than placated European states. The Netherlands had to recall 600,000 masks purchased from China after they were found to be faulty, while testing kits and medical supplies sent to Spain, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Turkey were also found to have quality issues.

The anger against China caused by COVID-19 extends beyond governments, with European citizens also showing a growing resentment of the Chinese Communist Party. A June report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change found that 60 per cent of British and French people, and 47 per cent of Germans see the Chinese government as a ‘force for bad’, with similar numbers reporting that their perception of China had worsened during the pandemic.

As popular opinion turns against China and governments grow weary of Beijing’s actions, we will likely see European states being less willing to bend to China’s will and more defiant of Beijing. A recent example of this is Prague, which had its ‘sister city’ ties with Beijing severed after the Lord Mayor of Prague invited a Taiwanese representative to a New Year’s reception, violating the ‘One China’ policy.

Ultimately, while Germany’s pivot to the Indo-Pacific is one of the more confrontational actions taken by a European power to date, it may well be a sign of things to come.


Callum Irving is a final year student at Macquarie University studying International Relations and Chinese studies. He is passionate about Australian foreign policy, Chinese history and politics and improving his Mandarin skills.



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