EU-China relations stand at a new historical starting point. China senses an opportunity as the EU could be the next target of a United States effort to replace multilateral trade rules with managed trade. China may expect some wins in Europe in 2020 in the area of 5G infrastructure. Huawei has signed 20 commercial contracts with European operators. Before the end of the year, the EU will unveil its toolbox of defensive measures for member states to use as a template to create or amend their security legislation regarding 5G networks.
China is using its influence and power politics to defend the interests of its national champion, and the strategic stakes of having a firm foothold in Europe’s critical infrastructure are clearly part of Beijing’s rationale. China is forcing its way towards this ‘new historical starting point’. The current moment seems unusually favourable – a new commission in Brussels to test, a phase one trade deal to be signed in January with US, a presidential campaign there that promises to consume American energies, and questions regarding transatlantic relations.
Beijing is working to create the conditions for a Europe divided on Huawei, to maintain access to technology despite the irreversible trend towards stricter controls, and to neutralise Europe’s promotion of democratic values – or at least moving towards an EU-China partnership where systemic rivalry is ignored. This objective goes against the defensive China policy trends in Europe. It will not be achieved fully, but it could be partially achieved if the new European Commission lacks vigilance or if the US conducts its Europe policy at the expense of transatlantic convergence on China.