European Council president Charles Michel heads to Beijing on December 1, the latest in a procession of western leaders to seek an audience with Xi Jinping, in a year when the Chinese president has cemented his position as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

Xi met more than 20 heads of government earlier in 2022 at the Beijing Olympics, but most of these did not represent democracies. The visit of Michel, a senior European politician, will focus attention on western attitudes to China’s increasingly assertive geopolitical stance. And it is likely to highlight deep divisions in the west over how to deal with Beijing.

The first divide is transatlantic. It’s true that US president Joe Biden took a more conciliatory tone at his recent meeting with Xi at the G20 summit in Indonesia. But Washington is generally taking a much more hawkish approach to China than the major EU members, especially France and Germany.

The most recent US national security strategy, released at the end of October, characterises China as “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it”. It makes “maintaining an enduring competitive edge over the PRC” a US priority.

By contrast, Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, speaking at the European Parliament on November 22, put the EU’s emphasis on cooperation with China. Noting differences with China – including on democracy, human rights, and multilateralism – Borrell also said: “China is becoming increasingly assertive and developing an increasingly vigorous competition.” But, crucially, he closed his speech by saying: “The United States are our most important ally but, in some cases, we will not be in the same position or on the same approach to towards China.”

While the US has started to increase pressure on EU allies to align more closely with its hard line on China, Europeans have been pushing back. There have been reports about Dutch concerns over new US export restrictions to China. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, who is to meet Biden in Washington on December 1, is expected to raise EU-China relations in their discussions.

And perhaps most importantly, during German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s recent visit to China, the emphasis was very much more on economic cooperation than on political competition.

Fractious European unity

Yet it would be too simplistic to assume that there is a clear dividing line that runs through the Atlantic. Within the EU, there are clear differences over how to approach China, and they are difficult to paper over. For example, the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, signed to much fanfare and criticism in December 2020, remains to be ratified.