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