EU-China security cooperation: An intersection of interests?



On 10th December 2020, the European Union and China met virtually for their 11th Annual Consultation on Security and Defence. This meeting provided an opportunity for the two sides to exchange views on various global security issues, such as maritime security, particularly in the Gulf of Aden, and the Iran nuclear deal, as well as to build greater trust and understanding of their respective goals. Importantly, the conference also served as a platform for discussing areas of future cooperation between the two parties which both possess growing ambitions as global security leaders. The Afghan peace process and North Korean denuclearisation were two of the future prospects highlighted during the meeting.

As a year marred by the impact of a global pandemic, rising tensions in the region and the uncertainty of a pivotal US election, the achievement of any new agreements between China and the EU in 2020 can be marked as a success in itself. With recent EU-China milestones such as the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment being primarily of an economic nature, it is worth exploring the joint security endeavours of these two key players over the last year in greater detail, as well as in which areas we may expect to see future security cooperation to advance in the coming months, should their interests align.

The European Commission and the High Representative’s 2019 Joint Communication ‘EU-China: A Strategic Outlook’ highlights joint successes in the Horn of Africa and Iran, as well as identifying possible areas of future Sino-European security cooperation. Other recent joint statements, such as those from the June 2020 virtual EU-China Summit and the September 2020 online Leaders’ Meeting reiterate these shared security priorities. Here the current state of EU-China security cooperation will be assessed, with a focus on four specific areas of mutual interest and the potential of successful collaboration. These are the Horn of Africa and Iran, plus the prospects for future collaboration in Afghanistan and North Korea.

Piracy off the Horn of Africa

An area of great collaborative success between the EU and China is their joint action in tackling piracy off the Horn of Africa. The EU Naval Force’s (NAVFOR) ‘Operation Atalanta’ operates within the framework of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), and has been combating Somali-based piracy and armed robbery since 2008. Widely considered one of the EU’s most successful security initiatives, the mission has overseen a drastic reduction in piracy attacks from over 1900 attacks in 2011, to only four in 2018. 

China, among other national forces, has been contributing to the EU NAVFOR mission since 2018, when the naval wing of the state People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began participating in joint maritime exercises with EU forces. In this role, Chinese forces conduct counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden to promote the stability of the waterway. This marked a first in EU-China naval collaboration, placing China at the centre of this mission, following which the EU firmly viewed itself as a “global maritime security provider”.

China’s interest in the Horn of Africa and the stability of the area emanate from the opening of China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017. The Gulf of Aden, a maritime trade route through which roughly 20 percent of global trade passes, lies off Djibouti’s coast. Furthermore, the Maritime Silk Road – the naval component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative – passes through this waterway. This helps to explain the area’s vulnerability to piracy attacks as well as the strategic importance of this region’s stability to China. This example of cooperation likely represents a turn in Chinese foreign policy towards a more active security strategy based on protecting its key economic routes, which broadly speaking will encourage peaceful outcomes and thus align with European global interests. With Operation Atalanta authorised to run until late 2022, there is continued opportunity for both parties to cooperate on this front. This complementarity in interests can be further seized by developing more robust and regular cooperation activities in the Horn of Africa.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

A second area in which the EU and China have recently cooperated is in the creation and maintenance of Iran’s nuclear deal. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in 2015 by Iran, Germany, the EU and the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US). The ‘P5+1’ group began jointly engaging in diplomatic efforts with Iran in 2006, when they adopted the first UNSC Resolution pertaining to Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The deal commits Iran to reducing its uranium stockpile to safe levels in return for the lifting of international sanctions. As signatories to the deal, both the EU and China had a crucial role in the creation of the JCPOA and its success in reducing Iran’s uranium stockpile by 98 percent, drastically reducing Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons. Since the 2018 US withdrawal from the deal under the Trump administration, participating countries have struggled to preserve Iranian compliance but continue to endorse their commitment to the agreement. Additionally, Iran is continually cited as a shared security priority during EU-China cooperation forums such as the June 2020 Summit.

China, in addition to being a P5 member, has unique relations with Iran. As a gateway to the Middle East, Iran has historically been of great importance to China as a part of its main trade routes, a strategic value it still holds today as China attempts to incorporate Iran into its Belt and Road Initiative. In March 2021, a 25-year Strategic Partnership was announced between the two nations, including substantial Chinese investment in Iranian oil energy and access to Iranian ports and transport routes. This gives China unique leverage with Iran that may help bring it back into compliance, and a vested interest in finding a peaceful solution to disagreements. Indeed, China utilised this diplomatic strength to encourage Iran to sign the original agreement. With the Biden administration attempting to negotiate its re-entry to the JCPOA, China appears to be taking a lead mediating role between the US and Iran, encouraging the two to reach a new agreement. 

While China is naturally more suited to persuading Iran, something which might relieve the EU as it is not in a position to do so itself, the EU appears to be carving a role for itself as a mediating influence on the US side. The EU and China should continue harnessing their respective relationships – particularly China with its leverage over Iran – to encourage a return to compliance with the deal. However, the recent China-Iran economic deal casts doubts on China’s intentions to curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities, as the significant oil exports that feature in the Partnership will limit the effectiveness of ongoing international sanctions against Iran.

The Afghan Peace Process

The EU’s 2019 Strategic Outlook on China and the statements of the 2020 EU-China Meetings at the highest level not only reiterate the joint successes in the Horn of Africa and Iran, but also suggest possible areas of future security cooperation between the parties. One such area of developing cooperation relates to Afghanistan, where US troops are currently being withdrawn following the February 2020 US-Taliban Peace Deal. However, the second round of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government seems to have stalled, with violence steadily increasing. The EU has so far played a secondary role in this conflict and its resolution, mainly through its management of intra-Afghan dialogues held in 2020, its longstanding financial aid to Afghanistan and its multiple Afghan strategy documents, emphasising the importance of an Afghan-led inclusive peace agreement for a durable end to the conflict. 

Although China had not expressed a strong interest in the Afghan conflict due to its historic policy of non-interference overseas, it is likely to become more involved in the Afghan peace process in the near future. Firstly, Afghanistan presents a valuable economic opportunity and trading partner to China, due to its positioning along its Belt and Road Initiative route. For China to invest and develop fruitful partnerships with Afghanistan it first requires stability in the country, increasing the Chinese interest in Afghan security affairs. Furthermore, as Afghanistan borders China’s Muslim-majority Xinjiang province, Beijing has an interest in preventing Islamic extremism in the region.

The ‘Father of the Taliban’, Maulana Samiul Haq, has previously welcomed the idea of China as a negotiator, indicating real interest in parties other than the US getting involved in the peace-making process. This creates a possible space for not just China but also other budding security providers, such as the EU, with whom Afghanistan has a less hostile relationship than it does with Washington.

However, EU and Chinese approaches to the issue are not completely aligned. Europe’s possible leverage stems from its financial contributions to Afghanistan, however the strict conditionality of its continued support relies on human rights adherence from Kabul. Meanwhile, Chinese influence results from its pre-existing relationship with both sides in the Afghan conflict and its relative neutrality, coupled with its desire to increasingly mediate international conflicts. One possible way for the EU and China to unify their efforts is to get behind the recent US proposal for an interim power-sharing government, an attempt at stabilising the situation ahead of the scheduled start of troop withdrawals in May 2021. However, any decision should prioritise the wishes of the Afghan people, whose consent is key to achieving peace. In the absence of the US proposal gaining traction, we may see the EU exercising its desire to work alongside China on this issue through joint mediation efforts, or EU-led mediation that draws upon China’s advanced knowledge of this regional conflict.

North Korean Denuclearisation

A second area of possible enhanced future cooperation relates to the denuclearisation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The North Korean nuclear programme has presented a severe global security threat for several years, particularly since the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile test in 2017. Two US-DPRK summits were held in 2018 and 2019 in an attempt to de-escalate tensions, although limited progress has been made on the issue.

With America’s retraction from foreign affairs during the Trump administration and the North Korean view that the American approach towards them is too hostile, there may be room for the EU to play a bigger role in negotiating denuclearisation. Certain EU member states are already active in this field, including Sweden which hosted US-DPRK negotiations in 2019, and France’s previous expressions of interest in assisting with the denuclearisation process. Furthermore, Europe’s ongoing autonomous sanctions against North Korea are the most restrictive in the world, indicating their clear investment in the issue, even though these sanctions may not necessarily be the best response. North Korean officials have previously expressed their interest in EU participation in the process as a counterweight to hostile US policy – and with its negotiating experience in Afghanistan and Iran, the EU would also be well-equipped to do so. The EU has recently expressed willingness in this regard, although the process of mediating is clearly not straightforward.

There is an even greater potential role for China. As North Korea’s biggest trading partner despite severe international sanctions, China has significant political and economic influence over Pyongyang which it can leverage to influence positive outcomes and consideration of international demands. Moreover, an unstable and nuclear-armed North Korea threatens China due to their shared border, where risks of a regional nuclear build-up, potential foreign intervention to address the DPRK problem, or a huge influx in North Korean refugees all give Beijing a personal interest in reaching a diplomatic solution. However, China’s intentions regarding this issue remain unclear, as they also continue to benefit from subverting UN-imposed trade restrictions against the DPRK.

As an influential neighbour, we might see China using its gravitas soon to encourage a peaceful and diplomatic negotiation of the North Korean situation, which might serve to threaten Washington’s role as primary mediator. While the EU has historically opted for a more forceful approach towards Pyongyang, they are still likely to be viewed more favourably than the US and may be able to contribute their negotiation expertise towards a peaceful resolution.

What is next?

Reflecting on the highlights in EU-China security cooperation over the past year, further cooperation in Iran and North Korea, plus the particularly viable opportunity to help in Afghanistan, all present potential avenues for fruitful collaboration between the EU and China on security issues, should their interests continue to align.

While China’s primary motivations concern its economic interests and stability at its borders, the EU is more concerned with developing a role for itself as a global security provider. Accordingly, China benefits from positive relationships with states such as Iran and Afghanistan, providing it with unique leverage to encourage peaceful cooperation in multiple conflict settings, meanwhile the EU can harness its diplomatic expertise and greater neutrality to take on a more technical role. 

Yet such predictions are not without their challenges. Like many conflict settings around the world, the international response to the situations in North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran depend heavily on the policies of the new Biden administration. Its gradual return to an active role in the multilateral system will shape the space left for other key players. Moreover, the EU stepping up as a global security player requires sufficient harmonisation between member states. 

Furthermore, the EU-China relationship in the security field is not all harmonious. While the numerous points of converging interest allow for joint cooperation, ongoing EU concerns over Hong Kong and Xinjiang – amongst other ongoing security situations – have been met with opposition on behalf of China. Formal channels of communication exist between the two sides in contemporary spheres such as cybersecurity and tech, but mutual suspicion and rivalry persist. As competition for dominance in the digital domain continues, Europe evaluates key risks, such as Chinese cyberattacks and the potential security consequences of an overdependence on Chinese technologies for critical infrastructures. The latest exchange of sanctions illustrates the renewed tensions between both sides.

Given these existing tensions, it is clear that the EU-Chinese working relationship is far from perfect. But existing areas of cooperation highlight that there are clearly mutually aligning interests between the two sides, even if their approaches and ultimate objectives are not the same. On the issues of non-agreement, the EU should focus on preserving positive relations with China while utilising relations with other close partners, such as Washington, to realise outcomes that maximise their strategic interests. If the two sides are able to harness their potential for collaboration, they may be able to tackle even more complex cases in the future, such as the ongoing situation in Myanmar.

With the next EU-China Leaders’ Meeting planned for later in 2021, only the next few months will tell whether 2021 is indeed a year for greater collaboration on global security issues, or what else to expect.

Author: Holly O’Mahony, Junior Researcher, EIAS

Photo Credits: Flickr