The 20th Party Congress confirmed Xi Jinping’s historic third term in October 2022. Since then, EU leaders, heads of state and government of the member states have engaged in a series of visits to congratulate and set the tone for future relations with “Xina”. The low point of this visit diplomacy was Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to Europeanize his visit to China by asking Ursula von der Leyen to come along. His intentions were good, but implementation was poor. The visit became a success for the Chinese propaganda apparatus rather than a display of European unity. It thus made it very clear that it is time for a radical change in the EU’s visit diplomacy with China.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was the first European top leader to travel to China after the Party Congress in the beginning of November 2022. He went alone, even though Emmanuel Macron had reportedly offered to accompany him in an attempt to showcase European unity vis-à-vis China.

Instead, Scholz brought a big business delegation, including Volkswagen, BASF and Siemens. This invoked the impression of a business-as-usual continuation of the Merkel-era approach to Sino-German relations, which prioritized national economic interests above anything else.

Given the ongoing discussions about reducing critical economic dependencies on China and calls for a more coordinated EU approach towards China, the whole framing of Olaf Scholz’s visit seemed oddly out of time. Moreover, it offered fertile soil for Beijing’s divide-et-impera tactics vis-à-vis the EU, which were on full display at the G20 summit in Bali a couple of weeks later: Xi Jinping ignored the two EU leaders, Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, present at the summit, and engaged bilaterally with the heads of individual member states.

The next controversial trip to China, in early December, by Charles Michel, President of the European Council, followed the Chinese authorities abruptly cancelling the video address (reportedly critical of Russia’s “illegal war in Ukraine”) he had planned to give at China International Import Expo in Shanghai earlier in November.

The timing already was sensitive since Michel not only was the first Western leader to meet with Xi amidst the ongoing protests against China’s strict “Zero-Covid Policy”, but his visit also took place during the first day of the U.S.-EU Dialogue on China in Washington.

The latter was not conducive to transatlantic relations and allowed the Chinese propaganda apparatus to attest to Charles Michel’s “tremendous courage” and announce that “Europe is waking up to the dangers of blindly following the U.S. hegemony geopolitical drive.” Since Michel also travelled without the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, it did not make a strong case for a coordinated approach among EU institutions either.

In Spring 2023, after Xi Jinping was confirmed as China’s President for the third time, the visit diplomacy continued. Spain’s Prime Minister met with Xi on March 31 in Beijing, only one day after Ursula von der Leyen gave a pointed speech on EU-China relations.

Sánchez’s tone during his visit did not mirror President von der Leyen’s critical assessment but instead remained rather moderate, stressing the importance of dialogue and cooperation between the EU and China. This could lead one to wonder whether the member states fully share the Commission’s tougher stance on China.

However, Sánchez’s visit was underreported anyway since the twin visit of Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen a few days later offered plenty of room for analysis and discussion. President Macron, who was invited as head of state, not only brought along a business delegation (just like Olaf Scholz did) – but also invited President von der Leyen to Europeanize his visit (which Olaf Scholz did not) and trumpet the EU’s unified approach towards China.

The plan backfired and allowed Beijing once more to apply divide et impera: While Macron got the red-carpet treatment by Xi Jinping himself, President von der Leyen was welcomed by the Minister of Ecology and Environment, Huang Runqiu.

Xi Jinping spent a lot of time with French President Macron and hailed Sino-French relations while showing a somewhat cold shoulder towards EU Commission President von der Leyen. On Chinese social media, she was portrayed as an “American puppet” and Macron as a shining example for Western states on how to deal with China.

Prime Minister Li Qiang was even quoted saying that President Macron was the “first major Western leader” to visit China after the start of President Xi’s third term in office, ignoring the fact that Spain’s top leader had been to China only a few days before.

The joint visit finally culminated in President Macron’s remarks characterizing Taiwan as primarily an issue between the US and China and emphasizing that the EU is an ally, not a “vassal” of the US. This led some observers to label the visit a “PR-Coup for Xi” or even a “complete disaster”. At least, it triggered a heated – but admittedly long-needed – debate in the EU regarding the Union’s stance on Taiwan.

The next European visitor in Beijing, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, therefore faced the difficult task of pulling the strings together again, which she mastered skillfully by making very clear that a military escalation in the Taiwan Strait would be a “horror scenario” for Europe. Joseph Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, was actually supposed to accompany Minister Baerbock but could not travel due to a Covid infection.

In the speech on EU-China relations that Borrell was going to give in China and which was published on his website instead, he, too, emphasized the EU’s interest in maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, pointing out “that any attempt to change the status quo by force would be unacceptable.”

Nonetheless, this recent flurry of visits by top European political leaders to China created confusion about the consistency of the EU’s stance towards China and has given China plenty of opportunity to play the divide-et-impera card. Moreover, in these times of discussions on critical dependencies and the “weaponization” of economic relations, it has become increasingly questionable if bringing a business delegation for a China visit of a head of state or government – is really a good idea.

This approach clearly makes national economic interests the focus of the visit when it should be (geo)politics and a common EU approach. Unfortunately, however, these visits have mercilessly revealed the lack of unity and coordination among member states and EU institutions, which are badly needed for the EU to deal effectively with China.

A new strategy of visit diplomacy

This is why the EU’s visit diplomacy with China needs to undergo a radical change. Here is one daring suggestion:

  • EU top leaders: travel together, coordinating in advance between the EU institutions and among member states, to set a joint tone and agenda in order to demonstrate the common EU approach towards China.
  • Heads of state and governments of the member states: visits follow those of EU top leaders. to make national nuances, BUT without business delegations, making it clear that in the era of Zeitenwende, it is (geo)politics first, national economic interests second.
  • Ministers of the economy or commerce of the member states: follow suit, bringing business delegations along.

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About the author

Cora Jungbluth is a senior expert in the Europe’s Future Program at the Bertelsmann Stiftung. Her research focus is foreign direct investment and international trade (especially the role of emerging economies). Her research focus is on China, foreign direct investment and international trade (especially the role of emerging economies).

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