Perspective on the difficult evolution of the China-Europe security and defense relationship

T.note n.14

On May 31st, Andrea Ghiselli, T.wai’s Junior Research Fellow, joined an event organized by Dr. Cao Hui of the Chinese Academy of Social Science’s (CASS) European Studies Institute. Ghiselli was invited to share his opinions on the current status of the Sino-European relationship in the security realm.

In general, the situation has not changed much over the last decade: the relationship between the two sides remains mainly rhetorical in nature with little concrete outside dialogues and limited joint drills in the Gulf of Aden and port visits. Important exogenous and indigenous factors, such as US concerns and lack of unity in Europe, still prevent the further development of the security and defense dimension of the Sino-European relationship. The case of the arms embargo is a testament of such difficulties. Furthermore, in recent times Europeans, both at the EU level and at the member state level (especially France), recently appeared prone to side with the USA with regards to the events taking place in the East and South China Seas. It seems then that Europe is going in the direction opposite to the one suggested by the Dutch scholar Jonathan Holslag which calls for the EU’s “convenient marginalization” of Asian affairs – or at least of the most thorny issues where the Europe cannot give any meaningful contribution.

Nevertheless, according to Ghiselli, over the last few years North Africa and the Middle East have become regions where shared interests between Europeans and Chinese are emerging in a clearer and more definite way. And recent reports on Sino-European relations by the European Union show this as well. Zhao Chen, the Chief of CASS’ Department of the European International Relations, confirmed that there is also growing interest within the Chinese academic world to broaden studies on the relationship between China and Europe to explore what are the repercussions of its evolution in other regions of the world, Africa and the Middle East in particular. This evolution should be seen as the result of different, but converging trends that are not influencing Chinese and European foreign policy.

As to the European side, the divisions caused and further aggravated by the debate over fiscal and economic issues have greatly halted the development of a common security and foreign policy framework for the European Union. The marginal role played by Brussels in the several crisis exploded right outside of the Union’s eastern and southern borders, and its preference to act under NATO aegis (Libya) or under the umbrella of the United Nations Security Council (Mali and Syria), are the natural result of political disunity. This same disunity is also one of the key factors which, according to a recent report prepared by the European Union Institute for Security Studies, is likely to cause a transformation of the European armed forces into “bonsai armies” with little and redundant capabilities. Vis-à-vis decreasing capabilities, it seems that one of the main complaints moved by Sir Rupert Smith and other former European military commanders has not been addressed by politics.

According to Smith, indeed, the use of overwhelming and blunt firepower has become the favorite solution to foreign policy problems that would require a more accurate vision from EU executives of what goals the military is meant to achieve. The result was first the bestowing of contradictory state-building tasks to the military and then, when human and economic costs of such permanent occupations became unbearable for public opinion and European treasuries, the resort to air campaigns with the same limited and debatable results. Military intervention is not a step within a plan, but the plan itself. See Libya and, to some extent, Syria.

The events in Libya have affected also the way China looks now at European actions: the term “European/Western new interventionism” (read external military intervention aimed at changing an unfriendly regime with not concrete plan for the post-conflict situation) which became common in the Chinese debate well sums up the initial skepticism towards French intervention in Mali and towards British pressure to expand the air campaign to include Syria, either against the Assad regime or the Islamic State. However, the fact that France was quick to return the leadership of the mission in Mali to the UN and that the British government waited for the UNSC Resolution 2249 (2015) before acting made European actions much more acceptable to China. Moreover, since terrorists were the declared targets of military operations, there was no significant clash with China’s long-standing principle of non-interference.

Indeed, the protection of Chinese citizens and assets abroad has become a priority for China’s diplomacy and the People’s Liberation Army, especially since the traumatic Libyan experience of 2011. In particular, as Ghiselli argued, since then it has been possible to observe that China is increasingly at ease with the use and the authorization to third parties to use force, although always within the UN framework. More recently, the killing of a Chinese hostage in Syria at the hand of the Islamic State and the death of three other Chinese nationals in Bamako few days after a terrorist attack played a decisive role in strengthening this trend. Such evolution, despite triggered by terrible events, is positively pushing the Chinese closer to the Europeans in terms of concrete interest to eliminate terrorist groups through the employment of military force and, naturally, the authorization of the UN. It is possible to see this looking at the two aforementioned cases of Mali and Syria. In the first one, Chinese positions changed greatly from cold acknowledgment of French action to enthusiast participation in the peacekeeping mission, once it was clear that France was carrying out a quick and effective operation against Islamic groups in order to clear the way for UN troops to stabilize the country. In the second case, albeit minor players in the negotiation over the UNSCR 2249, both England and China found it convenient to support the resolution vis-à-vis terrorists that killed Chinese and European citizens and thereby put both sides under pressure to react forcefully. Some sort of alignment between China and England was already visible in the talks about the fight against terrorism in Syria between the leaders of the two countries during Xi’s visit to England.

To conclude, the necessity to achieve similar goals – fighting terrorism and dealing with regional instability – in the Middle East and North Africa are bringing Chinese and Europeans closer. Yet, this trend seems rather circumstantial, and hence fragile. While China appears firmly headed towards greater security engagement, what and how Europeans will be able and willing to do is much more difficult to predict. Existing obstacles aside (the arms embargo and US concerns), there is a substantial risk that a mix of decreasing capabilities and growing political weakness caused by economic and immigration issues in Europe could close the small window of opportunity opened in recent years.

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