Economic, Normative, and Diplomatic (Soft) Balancing: Making Sense of the EU’s Responses to China’s Rise in Asia

Cristina de Esperanza Picardo, Crossroads Europe |

This article is based on research presented at the UACES Graduate Forum Research Conference 2022 (23-24 June, at FASoS, Maastricht). The conference was supported by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union. The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.


EU-China relations are at a historical low and continue deteriorating. The EU’s skepticism towards China, which began in the mid 2010s, has been accentuated by the Covid-19 pandemic and China’s stance over the war in Ukraine, both of which have fueled the perception that the EU had been naïve about Beijing. This has prompted a turn in the way the EU approaches its relations with China. The EU’s traditional cautiousness has given way to an increasingly worded narrative and a more confrontational approach towards Beijing.

This has materialized in Asia, where Brussels sees China’s policies as a challenge to regional security and to Brussel’s own economic and security interests in the region. China’s foreign policy assertiveness has been a “wakeup call” for the EU to pay more attention to regional security. The security dimension, previously negligible in EU-Asia relations, is now, in the words of former HR/VP Federica Mogherini, the “biggest area of growth” in the EU’s engagement with the region. Against this backdrop, the key question is: how does the EU, as a soft security actor, navigate regional geopolitics and pursue its foreign policy goals?

This article proposes that soft balancing is a helpful tool to interpret the EU’s approach towards Asia in the context of worsening EU-China relations. Soft balancing is a “calculated, focused and nonmilitary strategy” designed in order to “delay, frustrate, and undermine” the threatening behavior of the target state. Hence, it is targeted against a state whose behavior is perceived as challenging, but who is not yet considered as an imminent or existential threat. Soft balancing strategies can be pursued through normative, diplomatic, or economic mechanisms, all of which are present in the EU’s approach towards Asia.

Normative and diplomatic means of balancing are closely linked in the EU’s approach to China’s connectivity strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and its growing military assertiveness in the South China Sea (SCS), both of which are considered a concern by the EU. Normative means of balancing include the promotion of alternative normative doctrines, or the use of international norms to undermine the legitimacy and/or delay threatening actions of the target state. Diplomatically, actors form formal or informal alignments to create a stronger front vis-à-vis the targeted state.

Regarding China’s military assertiveness in the SCS, the EU’s statements have responded to China’s moves by calling for adherence to international law and for strengthening the norms-based regional architecture. Similarly, the EU has delegitimated China’s actions by condemning them as “unilateral” and “endangering peace and stability.” On the other hand, the EU has sought to build cooperation with like-minded countries. The EU’s 2018 security strategy towards Asia identified maritime security as the top priority. Consequently, Brussels stepped up its efforts to build informal understandings, dialogues, and cooperation mechanisms on the matter, including setting up security dialogues with Japan and India. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is at the center of geopolitical tensions with China in the SCS, has also been at the front of the EU’s efforts. Brussels established new cooperation mechanisms with ASEAN and its member states, supported capacity building, stepped up its role at the ASEAN Regional Forum and even participated in a naval exercise hosted by Indonesia.

Regarding connectivity, the EU sees China’s BRI as a geopolitical tool through which Beijing aims at increasing its influence over developing countries and as a normative project to reshape the global governance architecture. Hence, on the one hand, the EU has tried to push China to adhere to international norms and made its engagement with the project conditional to its adherence to those standards. At the 2017 Belt and Road Form, the EU and its member states coordinated a series of common messages, emphasizing the need for the initiative to improve openness, transparency, and rules-based connectivity. In addition, it has sought to counterweight China’s BRI with its own vision of connectivity. The EU’s proposition echoes the normative criticism made to China, as it presents itself as a sustainable, rules-based, and comprehensive alternative. The implementation of EU’s connectivity strategy in Asia is grounded on close ties with Asian partners, including Japan, India, with whom the EU has concluded two connectivity partnerships, and ASEAN.

Finally, economic means of balancing include the use of economic tools to increase one’s own power and relative position vis-à-vis a threatening power. Recent studies unpack how the EU has sought to make use of its economic position in Asia to boost its role as a regional security actor. For instance, The EU’s FTAs with Singapore and Vietnam are part of its efforts to maintain a rules-based international order amid growing geo-economic competition between the US and China. The EU has also revitalized trade talks with India and has made efforts for relaunching trade talks with ASEAN in response to the “quickly changing international environment.” Finally, the EU upgraded its economic relations with Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province, by holding their first ever ministerial-level trade talks.

This is not to say that the EU’s interest in Asia is only defined by China. Factors such as the US’ unilateralism during the Trump era and the consolidation of the EU’s foreign policy have all contributed to a more comprehensive approach towards Asian security. Yet, worsening perceptions of China have certainly played a role in driving the EU’s differentiated approach towards the region. Brussels has combined a strong reliance of international norms with the diversification of its regional partners and the promotion of its own initiatives in Asia.

This article has argued that soft balancing offers a useful framework to interpret the EU’s approach, as well as to reconcile its geopolitical narrative with its lack of hard security instruments, and its self-perception as a principled security actor.