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The steady stream of European leaders visiting Beijing recently comes with a risk. Europe’s eagerness must make it look increasingly in China’s eyes like a demandeur — the party in diplomatic relations that cannot wait for the other to propose something, but has to come asking. But what exactly is Europe asking for?

It is clear enough where China’s interests lie. Politically, it wants to split a west brought closer together by Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine. Economically, it wants to prevent any EU moves to restrict its market access. In a mix of both, it wants to increase Europe’s economic dependence on China. It makes sense for Beijing to nurture Europeans’ desire to mark their distance from Washington, their resentment of being strong-armed by US foreign policy choices, and their commercial interests. Hence the much-noted Chinese charm offensive at Davos in January.

It is harder to describe Europe’s goals. It of course wants Xi Jinping to persuade Putin to relent from his obsession with wiping Ukraine off the map. But that is merely a hope, not a policy goal, if European leaders cannot credibly commit to restricting economic outreach while Beijing acts against their strategic interests. And their revolving-door visits undermine that credibility.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s speech before her own trip was a step in the right direction. She maintained the EU’s analysis that China is all at once a systemic rival, an economic competitor and a strategic partner. But she went much further in threatening to block China’s economic opportunities with Europe if Beijing stays on its current course. She will now have an uphill battle to make EU capitals rally behind this more combative approach.

Meanwhile in the US, Treasury secretary Janet Yellen has just given a speech that substantially aligns Washington with Brussels. She forswore “decoupling” from China as “disastrous”. Instead the US will subordinate economic policy to national security and human rights, but narrowly, while welcoming economic competition and seeking collaboration on global challenges such as climate change and debt crises. She might as well have used the Brussels triptych of rival, competitor and partner. Together, the two speeches suggest a welcome effort at a common transatlantic approach.

The problem is that, unlike the US, there are too many signs that Europe is unwilling to condition its economic ambitions to the nature of Beijing’s systemic threats. French president Emmanuel Macron’s remarks about Europe not being a “vassal” to the US is one such sign. Carving out an independent path is all good and well, but acting differently from the US just for the sake of it is merely contrarianism. It is natural, for example, to resent that Washington in effect decides what chip manufacturing equipment Dutch company ASML can export to China — but resentment is no substitute for a foreign investment and export control policy of one’s own. Von der Leyen promised one in her speech, but corporate Europe will hardly allow such constraints without a fight.

Many European business leaders still salivate at the size of the Chinese market, and most political leaders’ visits to Beijing are transparently sales pitches. Here we come to the crux of why the EU struggles to wield a credible geoeconomic policy. In Europe’s political economy, strategic objectives are still no match for the alignment between the mercantile interests of big corporations in core EU states and the entrenched trade-deepening instincts of the European Commission and many of Europe’s smaller economies. Beijing has good reason to sit back and wait.

But something is changing. “Access to China” for EU corporations increasingly means expanding production in China itself, not exporting Europe-made goods and services there. Before the pandemic, EU carmakers shipped about half a million cars to China — but they built 10 times as many European-branded cars there. Some will even consider it easier to build electric vehicles there to ship back to Europe than to expand production at home.

The gains from such trade will mainly benefit corporate shareholders in the EU and not the workers, small companies and countries currently tied in to Germany’s car supply chain. Eventually politicians will wake up to the fact that the benefits are not broadly dispersed. Only then are we likely to see economic considerations firmly conditioned on geostrategic interests in EU-China policy. Until then, Beijing hardly needs to take it seriously. It is time for Europe to learn that what is good for VW is not necessarily good for Europe.

martin.sandbu@ft.com

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