Ever since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the relationship between the West (primarily the U.S.) and China has worsened. Xi Jinping's persistent refusal to openly denounce Russian aggression and sever ties with Putin has resulted in a new crisis in Sino-U.S. relations. The two nations' amicable high-level diplomatic interactions have virtually ceased, and the language used in political and media circles, both in China and the U.S., has become increasingly bitter. Vladimir Putin, who aspires to befriend Beijing against the West, stands to benefit from this. However, European diplomacy could thwart the Kremlin's plans, as explained by Chinese scholar Andrei Smolyakov, who highlights how the recent trip of Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen to Xi Jinping could disrupt the Kremlin's ambitious objectives.
Whenever the U.S. mentions China, the discussion quickly takes on a hostile and aggressive tone. American politicians frequently caution Beijing that they will respond quickly and impose severe sanctions if China supports Moscow even slightly. The same is true for the other contentious issue of Taiwan, where the conflict and intimidation are escalating to a new, military level.
The tactics of Washington are evident. Despite the conflicts and trade wars that have occurred over the past few years, the two nations maintain a historic level of economic interdependence. To some extent, this grants Xi some “wiggle room”: “sanctions would also harm the United States, thus they will tolerate a lot from us to a certain extent.” In this context, the aggressive language of American politicians and their emphasis on active deterrence using open threats aims to destroy this notion of “wiggle room”: “the slightest misstep will make you our enemy number one.” Essentially, this represents an update of policy vis a vis Russia, where the sanctions and the overall international response after the 2008 war in Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea were largely disproportionate and ineffective in preventing the invasion of Ukraine.
The U.S. lets China know: “The slightest transgression will make you our enemy number one”
When it comes to China, economic threats carry greater weight than they do for Russia. Xi Jinping's reputation in China is built not only on “stability” and the nation's role as a major power, but also on the rapid growth of the economy and the improvement of the living standards of its citizens. This helps him maintain control over both the elites and the population. Western sanctions will undoubtedly have a severe impact on economic growth and prosperity, potentially even more so than they did in Russia.
The main flaw of the current U.S. policy is commonly known as the “spiral model.” This refers to a scenario in which both sides react with increased hostility to each other's actions, ultimately leading to a critical point in their relationship. This pattern appears to be unfolding between Beijing and Washington. Tensions are mounting at an unprecedented rate, anti-American rhetoric in Chinese political and media spheres has been gaining momentum since the days of Mao, the leaders of both nations are openly making threats of military force, and the focus on deterrence has not prevented this escalation. It raises concerns about inadvertently pushing China further into isolation and towards collaboration with Russia. What steps should be taken to address this situation?
Tensions between the U.S. and China are mounting at an unprecedented rate
It is clear that the U.S. government cannot drastically shift its rhetoric towards China to one of friendliness and positive reinforcement, opting for the “carrot” instead of the “stick.” Such a shift is unlikely due to concerns about repeating the same mistake made with Russia, and because it could have the opposite effect. Xi Jinping may interpret this as Western partners having “lowered their guard,” and may attempt to exploit the situation.
And at this point another actor enters the scene: Europe. Historically, European foreign policy towards authoritarian nations such as Russia and China has aligned with that of the United States, both as a NATO ally and as a region that is largely reliant on Washington's strategic backing. In the early stages of the war, this alignment was also apparent in the context of China, though it was not as pronounced. However, the situation appears to have shifted now.
While the emphasis on deterrence policies and the use of the “stick” is still present in European diplomacy, it is less pronounced than in the United States. Several European politicians, notably Ursula von der Leyen, have issued explicit warnings to Beijing about the potential consequences of supporting Russia, including severe sanctions and the breakdown of economic ties. However, unlike the U.S., European countries have also offered “carrots” in addition to threats.
Unlike the U.S., European countries have also offered “carrots” in addition to threats
It is important to recognize that Europe's approach towards China is driven by specific reasons. The context and attitude of China towards Europe is notably different than towards the United States, as Xi appears to be keen on improving relations with Europe. Unlike the hostile language directed towards the U.S., Chinese diplomats engage with their European counterparts in a friendly manner. During Vice Premier Liu He's speech at the 2023 Davos Forum, where he spoke about opening up the Chinese economy and attracting foreign investment to strengthen economic ties with other countries, it was evident that the “sales pitch” was tailored towards European countries, urging them to reinforce relations that have been weakened by the covid pandemic and the war.
Europe heeded – and welcomed Wang Yi, the head of Chinese diplomacy, when he visited several European capitals in February, including Budapest, Rome, and Paris. He was even invited to the Munich Security Conference, the same event where Putin made his pivotal speech. Although Wang Yi could not perform any diplomatic miracles and did not conclude any alliances or convince his European colleagues of China's commitment to peace and shared values, and failed to meet the expectations of the public, once again refusing to openly condemn Moscow, this visit marked a stepping stone towards a new European foreign policy towards China.
Macron's visit to China was a significant milestone that has been discussed for weeks. During this visit, Macron was warmly welcomed by Xi Jinping, which is noteworthy because Macron's trip was a complex and multilayered event in terms of domestic French politics, EU domestic politics, and Euro-American relations. Without examining every aspect of the visit, several conclusions can be drawn from it.
First, to demonstrate the unity of Europe and their shared commitment to policies and values, Macron was accompanied by Ursula von der Leyen as the EU representative during his visit to China. This was a deliberate move to show that he was not negotiating with Xi alone, and that he had the support of his European allies. Von der Leyen played the role of the “bad cop” and focused on China's responsibilities to the world and the need to condemn Russia, while Macron handled other aspects of the negotiations. This approach reflected a similar “sticks and carrots” strategy but on a smaller scale.
Second, the French president arrived in China with a delegation of around fifty French business representatives, adding a pragmatic dimension to the trip, focused on tangible outcomes rather than just symbolism and general statements. This emphasis on business and economic ties is a crucial aspect, as it represents the carrot that Europe has to offer China. Macron not only talked about strengthening these ties, but brought concrete opportunities to the table, demonstrating a genuine willingness to cooperate - on the condition that certain requirements are met.
Macron in China demonstrated a genuine willingness to cooperate and strengthen ties
Third, Macron's reception in China was not only friendly, but cordial. His visit lasted for three days, which, in terms of diplomatic symbolism, was longer than Xi's visit to Moscow. Macron spent all that time in Xi's company, and was even invited to Xi's hometown of Guangzhou, a personal and warm gesture that is rarely extended to Western politicians in China.
Although the topic of the war in Ukraine came up regularly during the visit, Chinese diplomats tried to avoid it. However, Xi did not rush to end the conversation, and instead, he was willing to listen (although not necessarily to agree) to the claims of his European colleagues. He made an effort to emphasize the unique and friendly nature of the talks.
Of course, despite all the positive developments, there was no groundbreaking outcome. China did not shift its stance on the conflict in Ukraine, provide any concrete assurances about not backing Russia, or commit to persuading Russia to cease its actions. However, the visit was markedly more fruitful than Xi's visit to Moscow. French business representatives engaged in substantial negotiations with their Chinese counterparts and inked 18 practical agreements, in contrast to the less substantial memorandums of understanding signed in Moscow.
The visit of Macron and von der Leyen was markedly more fruitful than Xi's visit to Moscow
More importantly, several other notable meetings were planned after Macron's visit, including the upcoming April visit to China of European diplomatic chief Josep Borrell followed by German Foreign Minister Annalena Berbock's visit. The frequency and number of these interactions between Western politicians and China, particularly during a time of strained relations, are unprecedented. These contacts are crucial, as regular high-level communication is often considered a key factor in preventing escalation and conflict. It signifies a mutual interest in finding common ground and a realistic approach to dialogue, which is currently lacking not only in the US-China relationship but also in China's relations with Russia.
Europe is clearly pursuing its own approach to managing relations with China, which differs from that of the United States, and it has so far achieved tangible but not significant results. Naturally, there are no guarantees regarding the effectiveness of such an approach, as predicting the behavior of authoritarian regimes, particularly China, is always challenging. Nevertheless, Europe remains a united front with its NATO partners, and regularly stresses this point, even with its original strategy. As a result, the risk of China perceiving this policy as weakness is minimal, while also significantly reducing the risk of further escalation. This allows Western countries to strike a balance between political carrots and sticks, which is extremely difficult for individual countries. Therefore, Europe may be able to prevent further deterioration in China's relations with the West, and, perhaps, even persuade Beijing to distance itself from Moscow.