Both China and the European Union enjoy anniversary years, and 2020, marking the 45th anniversary of their diplomatic relations, was meant to be a special one. From early 2019, Chinese government think-tanks and media started publishing lengthy reports on the state of the EU and its members, praising a flourishing bilateral relationship and calling for further steps. Chinese analysts were especially keen on stressing that relations with China’s largest export market were at their height – quite unlike the Sino-American relationship, which had sunk into acrimony under the Trump administration.
Despite China’s apparent enthusiasm, the “year of Sino-European friendship” has brought more challenges than successes, due to a mix of promise fatigue on the European side (with regard to a better access to the Chinese market for European companies in particular); growing Chinese assertiveness on the international stage; and increasing Chinese propaganda and controversies around the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, Europeans have started to realize that China is not just an aspiring global power, it has become one. President Xi Jinping’s assertion that, “This new era will see China moving closer to center stage and making greater contributions to mankind,” has turned into reality. China has in fact already moved to center stage. In a year marked by a global pandemic, however, China’s double approach towards the EU and its members has thus far been unsuccessful.