Foreign Affairs
Spain’s Informal China Policy: A Coherent European Approach

Spain’s China policy is similar to the EU’s due to its evolution of bilateral economic relations and endogenous Chinese developments. This policy is influenced by Spain’s EU and NATO membership, leading to the securitization of China’s engagement in Spain’s strategic sectors. Although Spain has not issued an official China strategy, they fully endorse the recent EU stance and there seem to be no significant inconsistencies on how different relevant Spanish stakeholders deal with China.

Spain’s China policy benefits from a broad consensus among the main national political parties and extends to the business sector. Spain’s political parties and civil-society groups are divided on China’s regime, with some criticizing it but remaining marginal. The 50th anniversary of bilateral relations and Spain’s EU presidency present opportunities to address global security and norms. Spain supports the EU’s vision of China as a partner, competitor, and rival, advocating for coordinated action.

Spain’s China policy reflects these complexities and is based on a nuanced understanding of China, allowing it to cooperate, compete, and confront China depending on the situation. This pragmatic approach avoids systematically jeopardizing the bilateral relationship on ideological grounds and allows Spain to defend its normative preferences.

Spain’s relationship with China has evolved due to factors such as bilateral trade, economic diplomacy, China’s internal changes, and its EU and NATO membership. These factors have raised strategic concerns of overdependence on China among Spanish stakeholders, which are framed by the US influence and the deteriorating US-Chinese strategic rivalry. Spain has shifted its perception and posture towards China’s inward investments, from a proactive policy to ex anteinvestment screening mechanisms. This hardening of position is linked to concerns about China’s dominant position and unfair competition in strategic sectors, such as solar energy and energy and transport.

Spain’s moderated attractiveness policy has impacted China’s role as a high technology provider, leading to debates on China’s involvement in Spain’s 5G networks and Huawei’s 5G equipment exclusion. The Spanish 5G Cybersecurity Law outlines potential foreign interference and supply chain vulnerabilities, labeling Chinese firms as ‘high risk providers’. Spain has never had a specific China strategy, but it is a key element in its 2021 External Action Strategy.

Spain’s China policy is largely developed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Presidency of the government, with the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the Popular Party (PP) playing a crucial role in its development. Spain’s policy towards China is influenced by the EU’s China Strategy, which is a guideline for the country. The country is less directly dependent on China than other EU member states, allowing for a balanced posture within the EU. Spain focuses on issues related to China’s attack on international rules-based order, lack of economic reciprocity, level playing field, and mutual market access. The country also perceives a gap between China’s openness signals and practical business opportunities, as seen in its services market.

At the national level, Spain’s policy towards China benefits from a consensus among political parties, with leftist parties hesitant to coordinate with the US on China policy due to their lack of trust. Far-right party VOX is hostile towards the CCP regime, and regionalist parties have a political proximity to democratic and autonomist movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan. This situation is reflected in parliamentary debates on topics such as Taiwan, China’s involvement in 5G networks, and the pandemic management. Business actors and associations play a crucial role in the bilateral relationship between Spain and China, as they are key players in reaching the Chinese market and delivering economic cooperation opportunities. Diplomats with close links to the business sector are often appointed as ambassadors to China, especially under governments of the PP. However, civil society’s mobilization on China remains low and politically insignificant.

Spain’s China policy is coherent due to the lack of an official strategy and limited personnel with specific knowledge of China. Coherence is achieved through inter-ministerial coordination mechanisms, including an inter-ministerial committee that manages different sensitivities towards the country within the State administration. The Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence are more concerned about the strategic and geopolitical implications of China’s rise, while the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism have a more business-oriented vision. The existing consensus between the two main Spanish political parties facilitates coherence, with the involvement of non-political actors like industry associations uncommon. However, the lack of an official strategy results in lost opportunities, as it lowers the capacity to exploit synergies between different sectors of the administration. Each sectoral approach to China aims to implement it without conflicting with other institutions, preserving national interests and following Spain’s foreign policy guidelines.

In 2023, two diplomatic events – the 50th anniversary of bilateral relations and the Spanish presidency of the Council of the EU – can stimulate high-level exchanges between Spanish and Chinese stakeholders. This will highlight China’s role in facilitating a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine. Spanish diplomacy expects China to play an active role in this process. However, expectations were dampened by the Chinese ‘peace plan’, which was coldly received by Spanish officials. High-level bilateral exchanges were reiterated at the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in India in March 2023. Later that month, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez visited China and asked President Xi to call President Zelensky, which Xi eventually did. Sánchez emphasized the points of consensus of the Chinese plan, highlighting China’s importance in the conflict resolution process and the significance of the Ukrainian factor in Spain’s Europeanist approach towards China.

The EU-China relations promotion during the visit aligns with EU institutions, advocating for balanced trade, transparency, and reciprocal market access. Taiwanese presidential elections and potential pressure from Chinese authorities may attract national attention. China’s traditional show of force has proven counterproductive in influencing Taiwanese voters. In Spain, a non-legislative motion on the Taiwan Strait has generated opposing reactions from Taiwanese and Chinese diplomacy.

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