15.06.23 China Review

The China Question': While Europe's stance towards Russia has been defined, there remains uncertainty regarding China

The war in Ukraine has shown Europeans that they live in a non-cooperative world, yet their instincts for cooperation are slowly adapting to this new reality, write the authors of a report by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). More than half of European citizens view Russia as an adversary, while only a third see it as a strategic partner or even an ally. Conversely, European feelings regarding an alliance with the United States have significantly strengthened. Furthermore, more than half of Europeans believe that, in the event of peace in Ukraine, it will be possible to restore relations with Moscow either partially or fully. However, the primary challenge for Europe's geopolitical vision remains China. The majority of Europeans do not share the American view of China as the main strategic rival, instead seeming to prefer an expansion of trade cooperation. Even in the event of Chinese arms sales to Russia, the general consensus among European citizens is that they would not be prepared to impose sanctions on China. Moreover, Europe is even less willing to get involved in a potential conflict over Taiwan. This can be seen as Beijing’s most significant strategic gain from the war in Ukraine, which has shown Europeans the downside of sanctions.

As expected, nearly two-thirds of Europeans now view Russia as an adversary with whom they are in conflict (55%) or as a competitor (9%), while only a third perceive it as a 'strategic partner' with whom they should collaborate (19%), or as an ally that shares mutual interests and values (14%), according to a survey of 11 European countries conducted by ECFR. Two years ago, the results of a similar survey showed that only 35% of respondents saw Russia an adversary or competitor, while 42% viewed it as an ally or partner. As in other surveys, tolerance towards Russia increases as one moves from north to south. Citizens are most likely to view Russia as an adversary in Denmark (74%), Poland (71%), and Sweden (70%). Germany falls somewhere in the middle (62%). Tolerance towards Russia grows the further south and southeast you go: in France, 50% of respondents see it as an adversary, while in Austria and Hungary, this figure is 46%, and in Italy 37%. In Bulgaria, a majority still perceives Russia as an ally or partner.

However, in the event of a peaceful resolution to the war (and it is understood that this peace should satisfy Ukraine), the majority of Europeans are in favour of a restoration of relations with Moscow. 48% of respondents believe that relations should be partially restored, while 21% envision a full restoration. Only 18% believe that Moscow’s isolation should be maintained. Poland is the most uncompromising, with nearly 40% believing that relations with Moscow should not be restored. In Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Italy, 68-69% express support for restoration of relations (either partial or full), with 26% of Germans favouring a complete restoration of relations with Russia. In Austria, 36% of those polled support a full restoration of relations, while 42% favour a partial one. Thus, there is a good chance that Russia will be able to normalise its relations with Europe once the conflict is over. However, Russia's position as a reliable supplier of hydrocarbons to Europe has been irrevocably undermined: 43% of respondents believe that importing hydrocarbons from Russia poses an increased danger to Europe, while only 15% believe that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Another 'achievement' of Putin on the European political stage has been a shift in the way that Europeans perceive their relationship with the United States. In the spring of 2021, EU citizens primarily saw the US not as an ally, but rather as a necessary strategic partner, and sometimes even as a rival or hostile force. According to a 2023 survey, a third of respondents (32%) now view the US as an ally. Another 43% consider America a partner, while only 11% see it as a competitor or adversary. For example, in Germany, one of the continent’s key players, only 19% of respondents considered the US an ally in 2021, viewed mutual relations through a competitive lens (22%), and perceived it as a strategic partner (39%). Two years later, 35% view their relationship as a partnership, 18% see it as a rivalry, and another third (34%) regard the US as a strategic partner. At the same time, the proportion of those who believe that Europe cannot always rely on the US for its own defence is increasing, with the number of such individuals growing from 66% to 74%. This represents a significant turning point in European geopolitical thinking and is largely linked to changes in Germany's position.

However, the central issue in Europe’s geopolitical worldview, which also influences their relationship with the US, is China. Europe is divided when it comes to the topic of China between 'hawks' and 'doves.' The first camp sees China as the main strategic competitor and the primary threat to the democratic world. This group is associated with the Biden administration and represented in Europe by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. Among proponents of the second viewpoint is French President Emmanuel Macron, who supports expanding economic ties with China and engaging it in a European economic embrace as a way to neutralise Beijing's anti-democratic strategies. In this sense, the 'Russian question' with which Europe has been struggling for the past 10-15 years has been replaced by the 'Chinese question.'

Around half of the Europeans surveyed see China as a strategic partner (43%) or even an ally (3%). About a third consider Beijing to be a competitor (24%) or an opponent (11%). 21% believe that cooperation with China carries more risks than benefits, while 28% hold the opposite view. However, a potential escalation of relations with China will put Europeans in a quandary. European citizens recognise the risks of further rapprochement between China and Russia, but for now, unlike Americans, they are inclined to ignore them.

But what would happen if China were to start supplying weapons and equipment to Moscow for the continuation of the war in Ukraine? 41% would support the imposition of sanctions on China, despite the significant economic costs of such a decision. On the contrary, 33% of respondents believe that restrictions should not be imposed even if this were to happen. As always, residents of the wealthier countries in Northern Europe are more ideologically driven (56% in Sweden and 53% in Denmark would support sanctions). In the south, only between a third and a quarter of respondents would support such a decision. It is now quite evident that sanctions against China would deal a powerful blow to Europe's economy, particularly that of Germany. German respondents are split on this issue: 37% support the imposition of sanctions, while 38% do not.

The question of Europe's position in the event of a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan appears even more striking. The majority of those polled (62%) believe that Europe should remain neutral and not take sides, with only 23% willing to support the US. Again, higher levels of solidarity can be observed in Northern Europe, but even there, only about a third of respondents would support sanctions. In Southern Europe, the number who would support sanctions is half as much. In other words, in the event of a potential conflict in Southeast Asia, the US-Taiwan coalition risks being left without European support. This can be considered China's most significant strategic gain from the Russia-Ukraine war, which has shown Europe the high price of sanctions.