Europe and the Re-Emergence of China as a Great Power. Interview with Hugo Meijer

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Hugo Meijer (CNRS Research Fellow at Sciences Po-CERI) is the author of Awakening to China’s Rise (Oxford University Press, 2022) in which he examines the European responses towards the People’s Republic of China since the end of the Cold War, with a focus on Europe’s three major powers. Hugo Meijer has produced a very comprehensive and thorough analysis of France, Germany and the United Kingdom’s reaction to China’s re-emergence on the international scene. He answers our questions on his research.

As the title of your book - Awakening to China’s Rise - suggests, there has been a change in major European powers’ attitude towards China. Can you elaborate on this idea and more specifically on the “stark policy shift” which you diagnosed?

The ambition of Awakening to China's Rise is to provide the most comprehensive analysis to date of how Europe's major powers have responded to the re-emergence of China as a great power in world politics since the end of the Cold War. To do so, it puts forward a unique cross-regional comparison of how the major European powers (France, Germany and the United Kingdom) have confronted Chinese assertiveness both in the Asia-Pacific and in Europe.

Firstly, the book analyses their response to China's increasingly muscular regional posture in the Asia-Pacific through the development of diplomatic and security initiatives with partners in the region. Secondly, it delineates how they have confronted China's inroads into Europe, looking at the measures that they have taken to tackle Chinese investments in, and supply of, technologies in strategic sectors such as critical national infrastructures, dual-use technologies, and in the digital domain, including Huawei's 5G networks.

A longstanding assumption in the International Relations (IR) literature has been that European foreign policies toward the People's Republic of China (PRC) have been driven by a 'naïve' and self-interested focus on the economic opportunities presented by such a vast market, overlooking security considerations.

This book challenges such common belief through a detailed examination of the policies of France, Germany and the United Kingdom (the ‘Big Three’) from 1989 to the present. Its central argument is that, whereas this assessment aptly characterised the first two post-Cold War decades, Beijing's growing assertiveness after 2009 caused the three major European powers to awaken to China's rise.

In particular, since the 2010s, heightened threat perceptions of China, coupled with increasingly competitive bilateral economic relations with the PRC, have gradually and cumulatively caused the hardening of their policy goals which, in turn, translated into the formulation of new, more stringent policy instruments to confront such a challenge.

Why and to what extent have European states been ‘blind’ or ‘asleep’ to the gradual rise of China for so many years?

Throughout the 1990s and until the late 2000s, the policies of Europe’s major powers were largely driven by a mix of greed and naïveté in their relationship with a rising China. For one, the main European powers eagerly expanded their exports and investments in the vast, emerging Chinese market and developed significant economic interests across the Asia-Pacific, with a focus on trade, investments, and arms sales—although to varying degrees. France also maintained significant interests in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Indian and Pacific Oceans while the United Kingdom gradually developed substantial financial ties with the PRC.

Hugo Meijer Awakening to China's Rise Book coverAt the same time, policymakers in Paris, Berlin, and London exhibited low threat perceptions of China. They considered that Beijing’s foreign policy abided by Deng Xiaoping’s guidelines of maintaining a low profile and refraining from claiming leadership. The PRC was seen as a peaceful rising power that largely focused on domestic priorities such as internal stability and economic growth. And even though they monitored China’s military modernization, British, French, and German policymakers viewed the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) capabilities as being largely outdated and as posing few security concerns. One exception was, for France, the growing range of the PLA’s intercontinental ballistic missiles. Likewise, Chinese espionage and technology theft, including through cyber means, did provoke some disquiet among the Big Three, but the technological gap between European and Chinese industrial and technological capabilities was deemed so profound that these practices were not perceived as posing a major security challenge.

In light of these rising economic interests and low threat perceptions, their foreign policy goals vis-à-vis China and the Asia-Pacific overwhelmingly revolved around the pursuit of economic opportunities. One specificity which differentiated the United Kingdom’s ‘China policy’ from those of France and Germany prior to 1997 was the utmost centrality of the negotiations over the future status of Hong Kong in the United Kingdom–PRC relationship. The handover of the former British colony to the PRC in 1997, however, removed a major source of friction and enabled the subsequent thickening of Sino-British economic and political ties. Thereafter, the ‘China policies’ of Europe’s major powers converged around three policy goals: to broaden their economic and diplomatic engagement with Beijing; to integrate China in the international system; and to thereby encourage a gradual economic and political liberalisation within the PRC.

Except for this overarching focus on deepening ties with China, the foreign policies of the Big Three in the Asia-Pacific region remained piecemeal and lacked a clearly defined policy framework, receiving little prioritisation in their overall foreign policy. Their engagement in the region mostly consisted of patchworks of loosely coordinated diplomatic and economic endeavours with little emphasis on the security dimension. They all focused on deepening their economic and diplomatic relations especially with China and, to a lesser extent, with a few selected emerging regional powers through bilateral and multilateral initiatives, with little centralised coordination.

Likewise, in Europe, these policy goals translated into very open investment regimes, with the three countries eagerly encouraging Chinese firms to establish a presence in Europe and imposing few, if any, restrictions on Chinese investments. In fact, the Big Three competed for which country would become Beijing’s main economic and political partner in Europe. Consistently with these largely economically oriented goals, they also initially jointly pushed for lifting the EU arms embargo on China in the early 2000s. However, London and Berlin’s positions thereafter shifted, and they subsequently decided to oppose such a move. The combination of US forceful pressure on EU member states, China’s adoption of the 2005 Anti-Secession Law, and persistent intra-European fragmentation on this issue—which was further reinforced by the British and German policy shift—resulted in the issue of the EU arms embargo on China being de facto shelved.

And then what happened?

It is only during the 2010s that the Big Three reassessed the potential security implications of China’s rise because of the PRC’s growing assertiveness both in the Asia-Pacific and in Europe, at a time when their economic relations with Beijing also became more competitive.

As the importance of the Asia-Pacific in the world economy continued to grow, their economic interests therein expanded. Most notably, the three countries became ever more dependent upon trade flows passing through the Indian and Pacific Oceans and, therefore, upon the stability of the regional sea lines of communication. Concurrently, China became an increasingly important trade and investment partner. Yet, as the Chinese economy transitioned towards value-added high-tech manufacturing, and as the economic presence of Chinese corporations in Europe deepened through foreign direct investments (FDIs) and the supply of advanced technology equipment, Chinese and European high-tech industries increasingly became economic competitors.

Concurrently, spurred by growing economic, military, and technological capabilities, China became increasingly assertive on both continents—although with different means—thereby causing the threat assessments of the Big Three to heighten.

Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy copyright Igor GrochevChinese Liberation Army corvette, 31 December 2017.
Photo by Igor Grochev for Shutterstock.

In the Asia-Pacific, the PRC displayed a more muscular foreign policy geared to the establishment of a Sino-centric regional order. Coupled with its military modernization programme, Chinese regional behaviour, including its land reclamation practices, its contestation of international law, and its growing tensions with Asian neighbours, sparked rising concerns. In particular, while the three major European powers did not consider that China posed a direct military threat, they came to see Beijing’s regional posture—in a context of mounting Sino-American strategic rivalry—as potentially threatening regional stability (fuelling risks of unintended escalation and conflict), foundational norms of the rules-based order (freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes), as well as vital sea lines of communication upon which their prosperity relied. France, in contrast to the United Kingdom and Germany, also emphasised the protection of sovereignty over its overseas territories and exclusive economic zones in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. And both France and the UK worried about the potential implications of a regional crisis or conflict not only for their security partnerships in the region but also in light of their role as permanent members of the UN Security Council.

In Europe, China’s deepening foothold in sensitive industrial sectors also generated mounting disquiet. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom grew increasingly wary over how Chinese state-owned and private companies could syphon advanced technologies with military applications, gain control over strategic assets in Europe’s critical infrastructure, and endanger their high-tech industrial base as well as the security of supply in dual-use sectors. Likewise, they assessed that acquiring technology for their digital infrastructure from companies linked to the Chinese state, such as Huawei, could enable Chinese cyber-attacks intended to spy on data traffic or to disrupt digital networks. They also feared that Beijing could mobilise its growing economic influence to exploit the existing divisions among Europeans in order to politically weaken the European Union in its dealings with China (although, after the Brexit referendum, this concern faded away in the United Kingdom).

As a result of these shifting economic interests and heightened threat perceptions, the three countries gradually and cumulatively recalibrated their policy goals. At the national level, they formulated more comprehensive and cohesive regional policy frameworks and hardened their ‘China policies’ in order to better confront Beijing’s rising assertiveness. The Big Three all broadened the scope of their Asian-Pacific policy to the larger ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, encompassing both the Indian and Pacific regions. Concomitantly, whilst continuing to engage China diplomatically and economically, they hardened their national stance towards Beijing, giving greater prominence to security considerations.

At the same time, they promoted greater EU political cohesion vis-à-vis China and in the Indo-Pacific, in part to reduce their exposure to potential Chinese and US pressures and to increase their collective negotiating leverage vis-à-vis Beijing—although after Brexit the United Kingdom abandoned such an objective. Thereafter, in line with a common decision made at the EU level, France and Germany relabelled China a partner, a competitor, and a systemic rival. For its part, while London continued to pursue a positive trade and investment relationship with Beijing, it now identified the PRC’s rising assertiveness as a systemic challenge to its security and prosperity.

Xi Jinping and Angela Merkel, 2016. Copyright: plavi011 for Shutterstock
Xi Jinping and Angela Merkel, 2016.
Copyright: plavi011 for Shutterstock

Overall, through their ‘China policies’, the three major European powers have all sought to combine continued engagement and cooperation with the PRC in areas of common interests, with a toughened stance—and the willingness to now push back—against Beijing where their interests collided. Likewise, their overarching ambition in the Indo-Pacific has not been to balance China, an unviable goal given their capability shortfalls, the tyranny of distance, and their continued engagement with the PRC. Rather, they have pursued the ‘milieu goal’ of seeking to shape the regional environment in which China’s rise unfolded while forging a distinct position for themselves in the context of the mounting United States–China rivalry.

To concretize these new policy frameworks, the Big Three revised and strengthened the instruments leveraged to achieve such goals. For one, they moved beyond their previous ‘China-centric’ approaches by diversifying their networks of bilateral diplomatic and security arrangements with greater emphasis now also on Southeast Asia and into the larger Indo-Pacific. Likewise, they deepened their engagement with minilateral and/or multilateral regional fora and fostered greater multinational cooperation with the United States and other European states—although, largely because of capability constraints, Germany privileged the latter over the former. Paris and London also expanded their naval deployments in the Indo-Pacific, while Berlin decided to deploy a frigate to the region. At the European Union level, France and Germany (together with the Netherlands and other member states) promoted—after Brexit—the development of an EU strategy for the Indo-Pacific.

In order to confront the PRC’s inroads into Europe, the Big Three strengthened their national instruments to better monitor and, if needed, veto foreign investments deemed to be harmful to their security interests, and to restrict 5G suppliers of concern like Huawei both at the national and EU level. Initially, the three countries all opted for tighter national restrictions on 5G suppliers while eschewing a full-blown ban on Huawei. In 2020, the United Kingdom revised its policy and decided to ban the Chinese corporation from its 5G networks. Thereby, it became the only one of the three major European powers to impose a full-blown ban on the Chinese company.

In sum, what emerges from this analysis is that China’s rising assertiveness has been the key driver of change in the hardening of the Big Three’s policies towards the PRC, both in Europe and in the Asia-Pacific. Whereas growing economic interests have provided the underlying impetus for the three countries’ growing attention to the PRC and the Asia-Pacific, their threat perceptions of China—coupled with increasingly competitive bilateral economic relations—have been the main driver of change in their policies towards Beijing.

You devoted several sections of your book to China’s influence in Asia Pacific and Europe. How is this indicative of a more global strategy of China in the 21st century international politics?

The common denominator in both regions is that China has displayed an increasingly assertive behaviour in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and especially after 2009, and increasingly so since the 2010s.

Undeniably, as detailed in the book, Chinese assertiveness has exhibited partly different characteristics in the two regions. In the Asia-Pacific, Beijing moved away from the low-key regional posture of the 1990s and 2000s and sought to expand its geopolitical and economic clout within its home region with the goal of establishing a Sino-centric regional order. In faraway Europe, Chinese assertiveness has largely taken the form of a deeper and more pervasive economic foothold on the continent, with aggressive acquisitions in strategic sectors, and in the resulting enhanced political leverage over some European countries.

Yet, in both regions, Chinese behaviour has stemmed from a common driver: the growing capabilities and the ambition of the leadership in Beijing to expand the country’s reach and influence globally.

The cross-regional analysis put forward in this book aims to shed light on how the major European powers have perceived the security challenges posed by China’s rising assertiveness and to compare the combination of diplomatic, military, and industrial policy instruments they have mobilised, in response thereto, both in Europe and in the Asia-Pacific.

How can the current war in Ukraine influence and transform the foreign policy of the Big Three towards China and, more broadly, of the European Union?

It is probably too soon to assess the implications of the war in Ukraine for European policies toward China and in the Indo-Pacific. What emerges from this book, however, is that Europeans have faced two interrelated challenges in the formulation of a common policy towards Beijing and in the Indo-Pacific, and the war in Ukraine may affect both of these challenges.

The profound shortfalls and discrepancies in defence capabilities across the European Union, which have been further amplified by Brexit, are a core challenge. The power projection capabilities of EU member states in the Indo-Pacific have been hindered by severe shortfalls and asymmetries. Likewise, the diplomatic and defence means devoted to other contingencies, e.g. Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine have compelled Europeans to engage in difficult trade-offs in regional prioritisation and, crucially, in the allocation of scarce resources. Overall, the capabilities that European powers have been able to deploy in the region, most notably in the naval domain, have been very limited. This applies to major powers but even more so to medium and smaller powers.

Persistently differing priorities among EU member states constitute the second challenge. Because of their strong economic ties with the PRC and of disagreements on how to prioritise the key regions of strategic interest, which often revolve around Russia or the Mediterranean region rather than the Indo-Pacific, many countries in Europe have been disinclined to support policies that could alienate Beijing, such as an enhanced presence in the Indo-Pacific.

Given these existing divergences and challenges, it remains to be seen whether, in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Europeans will be able to manage the enhanced security challenge from Russia whilst maintaining the thrust of their policies in the Indo-Pacific.

Finally, the book relies on a broad collection of primary written and oral sources. Could you tell us more about the primary sources that you used for this book?

The book relies on a large body of previously undisclosed primary written and oral sources.
For this book, I conducted 223 interviews with senior officials in Europe (Berlin, Brussels, London, Paris), in the United States (Washington DC), and in Asia (Beijing, Shanghai, New Delhi, Seoul) between January 2013 and December 2021. The interviewees include civilians and military policymakers in the ministries of foreign affairs, defence, interior, and economics/industry, in embassies in the Asia-Pacific and in the United States, in the interagency coordinating bodies in charge of politico-military affairs, in the respective intelligence communities and in the national military staffs (including chiefs of defence staffs). They also include advisers in the Offices of the British Prime Minister, of the French President and Prime Minister, and of the German Chancellor and President as well as officials in the European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Union’s diplomatic service. I conducted interviews also with representatives of the high-tech industry, of its business associations, and of the national chambers of commerce in China.

Second, the book relies upon previously undisclosed declassified archival documents retrieved in various national archives located in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Specifically, these archives include: the French Centre of Diplomatic Archives in Nantes; the Political Archive of the German Federal Foreign Office; and the National Archives of the United Kingdom. Data were also obtained from the British Ministry of Defence through several Freedom of Information requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Third, this study leverages a large body of diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks/ Cablegate (1990–2010). Furthermore, it draws upon a comprehensive examination of more than 540 executive branch publications, parliamentary reports, national policymakers’ speeches and their statements in front of parliamentary committees and subcommittees with responsibilities for the Asia-Pacific, European affairs, and investments. Finally, the book provides new data on the naval deployments in the Asia-Pacific by the capital ships of the three European powers’ navies by combining the available primary and secondary sources. It also systematically gathers and presents data from a variety of existing databases on trade, investments, and arms transfers between the Big Three and China and in the Asia-Pacific, and on European Union–China investment ties.

Interview by Miriam Périer

Bank of China photo copyright: Gang Liu for Shutterstock

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