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Claudia Astarita: the limits of “derisking” and the future of EU-China relation

Updated: May 27

On November 29th, SPCIS interviewed Dr. Claudia Astarita on EU-China relations in security and trade. Dr. Claudia Astarita is currently an adjunct professor at Sciences Po and a researcher at Indigo Publications. She obtained her Ph.D. in international relations and affairs from Hong Kong University. Her research interests include Chinese foreign policy, East Asian regionalism, and China’s political and economic development.


This article summarizes the key messages from the interview, and the content has been reviewed and authorized for publication by Dr Astarita.


SPCIS: Could you briefly introduce the themes of your recent research?

CA: I’ve researched on China for nearly 20 years. I continue to remain focused on two major axes. The first is on Chinese students completing their studies overseas. The idea is to seek to what extent those students are changing their attitude and way of thinking about China, their relationship with China, and with their peers inside and outside the country now. Much more that is whether the choice to complete university studies abroad is creating more opportunities for those students or not. Another axis is regionalism, on which I started my PhD. However, it doesn't make sense anymore to talk about the regional agenda for China, so focusing on the most recent, it's a regional but global vision that China has, first the One Belt One Road, and then the BRICS, which is also changing and expanding. The idea that a China-led coalition is pushing for a revolution of the global order is not very new, but it’s another way for China to explore a new path to push for the evolution of the global order to incorporate China’s current weight in it.


SPCIS: Let’s start the discussion with the Indo-Pacific strategy, and you have recently published an article on this particular topic. What is the context of the publication of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy in 2021? What is the role of China in it?


CA: First of all, the European Union rushed to publish its Indo-Pacific vision because member states were already doing that, mainly France, Germany, and the Netherlands. When it comes to the foreign policy-oriented position, the European Union doesn't work in a collective way. Member states are taking the lead and national interests continue to prevail. When formulating a China policy given the complex context of EU-US-China relations, it is even more difficult for the member states to hide behind a European voice. One way for all European countries to advance their national interests is to continue to have bilateral conversations with China, and all the attempts to talk to China with a European voice have failed due to a lack of coordination and a lack of common vision. On the Chinese side, it continues to be convenient to have bilateral dialogues with member states. A European negotiation means similar conditions for all countries, which is not an advantage for China. The European dialogue is continuing on other fronts, mainly for bilateral trade or cultural initiatives. The Indo-Pacific is a security concept, and it limits the capacity of the EU to project itself in the security connotation.


SPCIS: When did the EU start to consider China as a security threat? Why did it happen?

CA: The EU is not capable of having security projection, and the only way to push forward common policy on China is the idea of derisking. On the economic dimension, the debate started with the American idea of decoupling. The US has specific reasons for endorsing this position because China remains its major challenge in the contemporary century. However, decoupling has become unrealistic considering how interconnected the global economy is, it has been transformed into derisking–a very strong European input. The idea of derisking also needs to be dealt with cautiously, because it creates a shared responsibility of identifying the sectors in which strengthening the cooperation with China could create risks and giving more flexibility to the sectors that are not considered risky. A recent publication by the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris also shows the complexity of derisking.

One example is batteries. Europe remains consistent with its own decision to push for a transition to electric vehicles. If the EU doesn’t want to use Chinese electric cars, they will have to produce those cars internally. The problem is that electric cars work with batteries that are usually made in China. When you talk to people in this field, for example, there is a huge company called ACC in France, and they tell you is that China is 15 years advanced, This company has been launched by a consortium of French and German companies. This company is meant to build factories that assembling batteries to boost the electric vehicles sector in Europe, but this company uses 70% of Chinese technology, 25% of Korean technology, and 5% of Japanese technology. On the one hand, on the European side, you want to create obstacles for Chinese companies to enter the European market. On the other end, to make the European market more independent and solid, you need to cooperate with Chinese companies because they are considered advanced. There is a gap to fill, and the fastest way to fill the gap is to transfer Chinese technologies to Europe. To me, it shows a deturned pragmatism and a lack of consistency, and that the position at the EU level doesn't necessarily correspond to what single countries can afford to do when dealing with China.


SPCIS: When it comes to decoupling, the US has adopted a couple of approaches such as friend-shoring. Do you think there's something similar that has already started in Europe to further reduce its dependencies on China under the “derisking” strategy?


CA: It's very hard to see. It seems that the logic of “business is business” is confirmed once again. Companies are not advertising that they are using Chinese machinery, but they do. Business is protecting themselves from this highly confrontative political narrative that is characterizing China-European relations by keeping an extremely low profile. I was reading that the United States is also strengthening its cooperation with CATL. So if the alternative is too risky and not affordable enough, China will remain an option. Another area is the one of solar panels. We are hearing more and more often that we are too dependent on China, and there are more and more requests for making the European market autonomous. Building new factories can reduce this dependence, but the problem is that when factories are built, Chinese technologies are used. When you start from scratch, you think the project could reduce the dependency of the European market on the Chinese one, but you have absolutely no guarantee that this will work. You have no guarantee about the prices of the final products or the solar panels. It's extremely risky. I wonder to what extent and for how many domains Europe is willing to invest in to try to develop new technologies and reduce their dependence on Chinese technologies when Chinese technologies are there and affordable.


SPCIS: 2023 marks the 10th anniversary of the One Belt One Road(OBOR) Initiative. In your opinion, what are the opportunities or challenges this project has imposed on Europe?


CA: I think OBOR is very controversial because China sees OBOR in one way and Europe sees it in another way. For Europe, the OBOR is something that is creating too many constraints. The concept is now extremely politicized, especially because of the escalation of tensions and the bilateral relationship emerging between Europe and China and the US and China. Cooperation with China under the OBOR framework seems to be endorsing China’s vision of the global order and putting its European partners in a position of dependence on China that they don't want. But once again, it's a matter of narrative and perception. The example of Italy shows that the Memorandum of Understanding does not play any significant role in either deepening or loosening the relationship between China and Italy. The reality is that it is not the OBOR agreement that creates dependence. The number of agreements that have been signed can create dependency with or without OBOR. The association of OBOR and dependence is very bad from a narrative perspective, it is reducing the appeal for joining OBOR in Europe. For China, OBOR is a frame that has evolved through time and now it is not necessarily connecting China to Europe but is more oriented toward strengthening partnerships between China and all countries interested in doing that, no matter where they are located. The confrontation between China and the EU on OBOR is on a political and narrative base, but cooperation is continuing on the economic base. The question is whether Europe wants to place cooperation under the OBOR framework. Italy is a clear example of a country that wants to make a step forward in terms of cooperation and a step backward in terms of OBOR.

The narrative of BRICS expansion is also linked to OBOR. The latter can be considered a test on to what extent China's influence could be expanded abroad. If the path of OBOR is not practical because there is resistance to the narrative and political side in Europe, then the BRICS Plus could be another way for China to test to what extent that influence could be expanded abroad, and in this case without having any geographical limitation border. China today is trying to see to what extent an evolution of the global order is possible and how to create momentum for that. Something else will also come out for China to test something else, such as the Global Security Initiative and the Global Development Initiative.


SPCIS: How would you define the aims of European policy on China? What should be considered a successful policy for Europe?


CA: Considering the current situation in Europe, the economy is the priority. Cooperation is needed with China but needs to be structured, following not Chinese ideas but shared rules and logics. The rules need to be fair, transparent, and respected by all parties. This could be the long-term goal.

The discussions should be made on what we want to achieve rather than evolving or changing the question on a daily basis to make up for changes that are emerging in the global debate. By trying to achieve too much, Europe is losing the chance to achieve something relevant to them. You have to accept that China is your counterpart, that China has specific ideas and priorities and is available for negotiating on some but not all. With China, it is more useful to be pragmatic. At the same time, if Europe wants to gain something in this negotiation, it needs to start in now, rather than postponing it to a time in which it will become even more difficult for China to accept concessions. I understand that China will inevitably be perceived as a threat, but if isolating it is not possible, discussing with China remains the only option.

Emmanuel Macron seems persuaded that it is not necessary to take sides. It's not necessary to split the word into the Chinese side and the American side, which is counterproductive for everyone. One of the European leaders that is trying to ask himself. What will happen in 10 years? What will happen in 15 years? What is the long-term perspective? He's trying to pass another message, say why not try to cooperate with both? Why not just try to find a middle way? That is more useful in terms of fulfilling the national interests and not positioning them in one of the two camps. If you position yourself in one of the two camps, you lose the opportunities coming from the other. I don't know whether this position will be successful or not, but I think it is a brave attempt to say, OK, let's go beyond our daily short-term ideas and perspectives; let's try to project ourselves in the future. It's smarter and braver and it could be more successful.


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