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Europe’s Chinese New Year

Over the last three years, Europe has been forced to abandon its geopolitical naiveté and recognize that normative power is no longer sufficient to wield strategic influence. If the EU is to thrive in a harsher, more conflict-ridden world, striking the right balance in its relations with China is essential.

BRUSSELS – The last year has solidified China’s status as one of the most salient foreign-policy challenges facing Europe. But it has been a long time coming. In fact, China’s emergence at the forefront of debate in Europe is the product of three political realizations that have occurred since 2020.

The first was the recognition, triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, that Europe had become dependent on China for a wide range of goods. After decades of single-mindedly pursuing comparative advantage by relocating industries, including polluting industries, beyond its borders, Europe had to face hard facts. Distance might not matter anymore, but geopolitics does. And a product that is not strategic can quickly become so if a crisis erupts, if production or trade is disrupted, or if a single producer gains monopoly power.

But the pandemic, with its shortages of ordinary-turned-critical goods like masks and chemical reagents, was just the beginning. The stakes have since risen considerably, because China has a virtual monopoly over the production and/or refining of raw materials essential to the clean-energy transition. There is no ready-made solution to this challenge. Both vigilance and political prudence will be necessary.