EU’s ‘strategic autonomy’ calls for sustainable ties with China

The European Union legally comprises three pillars, one of which is called the Common Foreign and Security Policy. As its name suggests, this pillar provides for joint foreign action and security action by the member states (John Fairhurst, Law of the European Union (Essex: Pearson Education Ltd., 2006), p 16). 

To strengthen joint security action, the von der Leyen Commission stated its intention of having a geopolitical commission to formulate a global strategy for the EU. “Strategic autonomy” is a policy objective of the EU under the von der Leyen Commission.

In the European context, “strategic autonomy” was originally defined as the ability of the EU to defend Europe and act militarily in its neighborhood without so much reliance on the US. Instead of confining to defense and security issues, many commentators like to look at strategic autonomy through a holistic lens, incorporating economic, energy and digital policies into this broad concept. French President Emmanuel Macron is a strong proponent of strategic autonomy for the EU and has made it clear that the EU should not gang up with the US against China. Encircled by the US and its supporters, China seems to be a beneficiary of strategic autonomy. Beijing also hopes its economic clout will deter the EU from supporting the US’ anti-China policies, ranging from trade and technological wars to its increasing intervention in Taiwan affairs.

The EU’s pursuit of strategic autonomy seems to provide timely relief for China at the hardest of times. But the recent seismic shifts in the global geopolitical landscape are not favorable to the EU’s adjustment. Following the outbreak of military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the EU has shown deference to American leadership in this proxy war. The stronger-than-expected unity between the US and EU has probably frustrated the EU’s dream of “strategic autonomy”.

In order to improve relations between the EU and China, both parties should avoid being locked in the escalatory spiral of countermeasures and retaliation. While Beijing should use more flexible ways to handle the EU’s sensitivities in a tactful and sophisticated manner, the EU should respect the strategic red lines of China

On Aug 4, the EU’s foreign policy representative released a joint statement issued by the G7, assailing China for what it called “overreaction” to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. This action has meant not so much as a simple “condemnation” of China, but rather an endorsement of the consensus view in the US that the EU should play second fiddle to Washington. But playing the “Taiwan card” does not serve the interests of the EU.

The Western alliance led by the US has declared that its own strategy is to inflict a defeat on Russia, though the peace camp in the EU has reservations about such a strategy. The US took the lead in imposing sanctions on Russia, and the EU had no alternative but to follow suit. Because of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia, Russia has cut gas supplies to some EU countries, resulting in serious energy crises. Another price of dependency is Washington’s demand for the EU to increase its military spending. Hans Binnendijk, Daniel Hamilton and Alexander Vershbow have also reminded us that the EU is likely to take on the lion’s share of the eventual task of reconstruction in Ukraine in the postwar period (

In 2019, the US signed a trade agreement with China without first having consulted the EU. Recently, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo have pushed for a broader tariff removal in relation to Chinese goods so as to help curb American inflation. The above proposal will greatly benefit the Chinese economy. We are not sure whether all member states of the EU will support the American proposal of a rollback. Inside the EU, the “justice camp”, which wants to punish Russia, may want the US to remain tough with China because of the fear that China will find some unhidden ways to support the Russian military operation in Ukraine. There is definitely a lack of trust between the “justice camp” and China.

Though the EU will eventually come to the painful realization that the cost of strategic reliance on the US is unsustainable in the long term, the EU’s pursuit of strategic autonomy may still be colored by unfriendly overtones against China. In order to improve relations between the EU and China, both parties should avoid being locked in the escalatory spiral of countermeasures and retaliation. While Beijing should use more flexible ways to handle the EU’s sensitivities in a tactful and sophisticated manner, the EU should respect the strategic red lines of China. Both parties should also widen the existing lanes of cooperation.

In May 2021, the European Parliament’s decision to freeze the ratification of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment has raised the specter that the escalatory spiral of countermeasures taken by both parties would seriously jeopardize their relations. Before making such a devastating decision, the European Parliament had expressed anger at the imposition of sanctions by China on members of the European Parliament, European Council’s Political and Security Committee and European think tanks, which were described by China as a response to the restrictive measures imposed by the EU against four Chinese officials over alleged human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

EU politicians’ meddling in Xinjiang and Hong Kong affairs seems to be the immediate cause that triggered the escalatory spiral of retaliatory measures from October 2020 to May 2021. The EU has consistently underlined the importance of values such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law in its external relations. It’s worth noting that former German chancellor Angela Merkel succeeded in striking a balance between maintaining good Sino-German relations and the so-called human rights issue.

The EU should avoid adding fuel to the tense situation in the Taiwan Straits. The EU’s unfair criticism of the National Security Law for Hong Kong and the city’s general situation also cannot be tolerated. The EU should consider putting an end to the imposition of unreasonable anti-dumping measures on China. Arbitration is a better option to solve these trade disputes. China’s cores interests in the South China Sea should also be respected. The allegation that the EU has relied heavily on China in strategic areas of the economy may not be sustained in the harsh light of reality. Marie Krpata reminds us that China also relies on European imports for some critical components. It is hence more accurate to talk of interdependence rather than dependence (Marie Krpata, “EU: China, a Major Driver in the Push for Greater resilience and Autonomy”, in European Think-tank Network on China Report 2022, p 26).

Finally, both parties should not let their increasingly competitive relations hurt bilateral cooperation. The Horizon 2020 Program — which focuses on food, agriculture and biotechnology, sustainable urbanization, and information and communications technology — has brought huge benefits to both parties. Not to be neglected is the participation by both parties in the ongoing discussions about the Trade in Services Agreement.

Junius Ho Kwan-yiu is a Legislative Council member and a solicitor.

Kacee Ting Wong is a barrister, part-time researcher of Shenzhen University Hong Kong and the Macao Basic Law Research Center, and co-founder of the Together We Can and Hong Kong Coalition.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.