In Europe and China, a New Status Quo

Beijing’s recent behavior has expedited a paradigm shift it always new was coming.

By: Phillip Orchard


2020 was supposed to be the “Year of Sino-European Friendship,” or so said Chinese state media last December. 

Eager to drive a stake in U.S.-EU relations, Beijing announced a number of grand diplomatic initiatives intended to present itself as Europe’s ideal partner in defending global trade and prosperity. 

But there’s been something of a paradigm shift in Europe about China, and 2020 might just be the year Beijing lost Europe instead.

Naturally, things started getting away from Beijing when the pandemic hit. 

Several European governments criticized insufficient transparency and disinformation campaigns, triggering a less-than-contrite response from China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats. 

This – along with alarm in European capitals about Beijing's attempts to weaponize their dependence on Chinese medical supplies and China's crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong – compelled Brussels to label China as a “systemic rival.” Since then, a long-awaited visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping in October was quietly scrapped. 

China's 16+1 forum with Central and Eastern European countries, which Beijing had hoped to use as leverage against Western Europe, lost steam as several of its key member states lost interest. 

A landmark NATO report released last month called for a shift in focus toward China and outlined the myriad ways, through conventional military means and emerging technologies, China could project power and threaten the Continent. 

The U.K., France and even Germany announced plans to dispatch warships to the Indo-Pacific in the next year.

This reflects just how many ways the West is beginning to see China's rise as problematic. 

And it plays neatly into the hands of the incoming Biden administration, which sees pooling resources and bargaining power with like-minded partners as essential to checking Chinese revisionism. 

Still, mutual suspicion about China is hardly the same thing as collective action against China. And Beijing is betting that, with Europe, it'll be every nation for itself.

Points of Contention, New and Old

Forging European unity on anything, even an emerging strategic threat, is no small feat. The Continent is lousy with conflicting interests, and its institutional structures are designed primarily to discourage internal conflict, not to march in a common direction against an external threat.

And yet China seems to be engendering the kind of unanimity Europe’s institutions cannot. Indeed, what's most notable about the past year is the vast number of areas in which Sino-European relations have deteriorated. 

Legacy issues – such as China’s human rights abuses, market distortions, restrictions on access to its internal market, insufficient intellectual property protections and so on – are still obstructive, but there is a new sense of urgency about them in European capitals, and in some cases a willingness to face the consequences of expressing them.

There are many reasons that this is so, but perhaps the biggest is a growing acceptance in the West that prosperity alone won’t liberalize China politically and economically. 

Rather, the Communist Party of China, at least under Xi Jinping, sees tight state control over the economy and the population as indispensable to party survival. This is why Beijing is clamping down on Hong Kong and herding Uighurs into camps, despite major financial and diplomatic risks. 

It's why it's shoveling state support to firms in technological and industrial sectors that the European economy depends on. 

It's why, according to business sentiment surveys of European firms in China, it's making life more difficult for foreign businesses, long Beijing's biggest allies in disputes with their home governments.

There are entirely new points of contention too, particularly the many ways in which China is able to militarily threaten far-flung European interests. 

These shouldn't be overstated; Europe, after all, is far away from the Pacific, and the recent NATO report highlighting the Chinese threat was published to remind everyone that it was still relevant in the world. 

Even so, Europe relies heavily on open Indo-Pacific seas lanes, making China's creeping control over the South China Sea and its push into the Indian Ocean Basin potentially problematic. 

The thawing of the Arctic – combined with China's rapid development of blue-water naval capabilities, its aims for a far-flung network of bases and its pursuit of space-based assets – could at least theoretically make China a player in waters much closer to home. 

And Europe has legitimate reasons to be concerned about potential Russo-Chinese military cooperation in the meantime.

But power can be projected in many forms, and China’s conventional military capability is for Europe the least concerning. 

More concerning are the other forms of Chinese coercion Beijing has been wielding more frequently this year, including weaponizing economic dependency. 

China is the EU's biggest source of imports and its second-biggest export market, surpassing the U.S. as the bloc's top trade partner a few months ago. 

Naturally, China's unyielding pressure campaign against Australia alarmed officials in London and Berlin, as did the forcefulness of Chinese threats to various European governments as they deliberated whether to allow Huawei into their 5G networks. 


There's also China’s financial power. In the last eurozone crisis, Chinese (and Russian) buyers scooped up assets across distressed economies, particularly in Southern and Eastern Europe, cultivating immense influence with powerful interests and making Brussels particularly suspicious of Chinese investment as it recovers from the newest, pandemic-induced crisis. 

Beijing’s demonstrated prowess in the cyberwarfare and disinformation realms only heightens such unease. 

This, combined with the reality that levels of dependency on China vary widely across the Continent, speaks to what is arguably Brussels’ biggest concern regarding China: its ability to exploit Europe's fault lines and distort political narratives in times when nothing less than the EU’s continued existence can appear in doubt.

Preparing for the Worst

As in the U.S., China has alarmed a broad enough array of stakeholders in Europe that its internal divides may be less of an obstacle than it’s been in the past. 

At minimum, it's becoming more difficult for Beijing to use its economic leverage in Europe to capture elite interests, cement commercial ties as the priority and keep Europe interested mainly in the status quo, if not paralyzed and wholly disunited. 

This is because China's political and economic needs, strategic imperatives and nationalistic impulses are making the status quo with Europe – where keeping the focus on business was indeed a mutual interest – a thing of the past.

China presumably understands the risks and inevitable costs of its hardline approach to managing friction with the West. And while Beijing excels at exploiting cracks in multilateral coalitions, forcing countries to engage with it primarily in bilateral settings where its bargaining power is maximized, it still fears being ganged up on, particularly by the rich and powerful. 

But due to whatever mix of internal political factors, tactical considerations and/or miscalculation, it's continually doubling down on its policy of “might makes right.” 

And with Europe, at least, Beijing just doesn't think it has that much reason to be worried about blowback – and certainly not enough to abandon things it considers vital to its own political and strategic interests at Europe's behest.

Some European countries, for example, can send warships to take part in patrols or exercises with Quad partners in Indo-Pacific waters. 

Some of these ships are quite modern and capable, and an expanded U.S.-led coalition in the region would certainly raise the costs of an attempt by China to, say, expel foreign powers from its littoral waters or retake Taiwan. 

But even a meaningful European military presence – one backed by European readiness for a real fight, which would be unlikely – isn't fundamentally going to change China's tactical decision-making process.

China's concerns about multilateral economic pressure are more acute. The trade war with the U.S. underscored the rapidly diminishing returns of unilateral tariffs, even when imposed by the world's largest consumer market. 

Modern supply chains and trade flows are simply too malleable for any single country to achieve all that much when going it alone. 

Were Europe, the U.S., Japan, Australia and others to act in unison against China on trade, tariffs would naturally be much more effective, even as China's capacity to retaliate would be diminished. This is possible but unlikely. 

Despite its frustration with China, Europe is still extraordinarily ill-suited for mustering collective action, particularly in times of incredible political and economic stress. Starkly opposing views about which particular part of the China challenge to prioritize – and how much to risk and spend – are inevitable. 

Getting Europe to act in concert on trade with a U.S. at odds with itself on trade policy, not to mention a half dozen or so other countries with their own risk-reward calculations regarding China, is a tall order.

Either way, everything China is doing suggests it's preparing for worst-case scenarios, both at home and abroad, and that it sees them as uncomfortably realistic possibilities. 

It understands that its rise and needs are inherently threatening to established powers, so making friends is far less important than making its expectations and red lines crystal clear. 

China, in other words, expected this paradigm shift in Europe to happen eventually. 

Preparing for it just incidentally accelerated its arrival – and put the ball squarely in Europe's court to figure out what comes next.

The Contradictions of China’s Real-Estate Boom Can’t Keep Going

Real-estate developers provide much-needed economic activity and land purchases. A squeeze on their balance sheets by the government would have impacts on international markets.

By Mike Bird


China’s real-estate developers contributed significantly to its recovery this year, revving up sales and construction activity as the world’s second-largest economy began to shrug off the economic effects of the pandemic.

But it isn’t clear whether they will be able to repeat the same act next year. 

Markets that are sensitive to the conditions in the sector, especially industrial metals like steel and copper, may begin to reflect that.

Late last month, China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission chief Guo Shuqing labeled real estate the country’s largest “gray rhino:” an obvious and highly dangerous threat that is tough to tackle.

Most listed real-estate developers breach at least one of three “red lines”—specific leverage ratios to avoid—which haven’t been officially announced, but which are repeatedly identified in state media. 

As of the end of the first half of 2020, only six major developers passed all three tests, according to BNP Paribas. Nine breached all three, among them Sunac and Evergrande, two of the country’s largest property firms.

In theory, where developers place on the redlines test will determine how much debt they can raise in the subsequent year. And without the ability to add leverage, their ability to buy the land required to finance local governments would be more limited. 

Analysts at Nomura expect land-sales revenue to rise by just 5% next year, down from 9% this year, the slowest increase in at least five years.

A residential building under construction in Dalian, China. China’s real-estate developers contributed significantly to its recovery this year. / PHOTO: LIU DEBIN/ZUMA PRESS


China’s real-estate market is, perhaps mercifully, almost entirely domestic. Aside from developers’ dollar bonds the sector’s creditors are overwhelmingly Chinese. There is therefore little risk of a chaotic spillover through international banks.

But there are some markets that will feel the impact of a slowdown in construction, industrial metals chief among them. The spot price for the S&P GSCI Industrial Metals 3 Month Forward Index is up around 18% this year, at an almost eight-year high.

There is one important caveat to the restraint on debt, according to Chinese state media: It excludes advance payments from buyers, which developers have increasingly relied on in recent years.

But if developers simply turn to ever-greater presales, that could exacerbate an existing problem: Developers start more projects than they complete each year, lengthening the amount of time between purchase and delivery for buyers. That raises the risk of leaving millions of buyers unsatisfied if major companies went under.

It is possible that the Chinese government simply bends in the face of these contradictions, and allows the developers more leeway on debt financing. But if it doesn’t, then the sector—and the wider Chinese economy—should begin to feel the squeeze in earnest next year.