China once saw Europe as a counter to US power. Now ties are at an abysmal low

Chinese leader Xi Jinping greets European leaders before a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris in 2019.

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Hong Kong (CNN)When Chinese leader Xi Jinping made his first state visit to Europe in 2014, he set out to herald a new era of cooperation in a multi-country tour, which the European Parliament President at the time called "a welcome signal of the importance that the new Chinese leader attaches to a strengthened EU-China partnership."

Eight years later, the optimism of that period has cratered, with the relationship between China and the European Union reaching what analysts call a clear low point of recent decades.
European concern about China's global ambitions and its human rights record, US-China tensions, tit-for-tat sanctions and, now, Russia's war in Ukraine -- the impact of which on China-EU ties Beijing appears to have either underestimated or dismissed -- have all brought relations to a nadir.
    That was underlined last month during two summits featuring European leaders. Both the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies and NATO significantly hardened their lines on China, in a signal that views in Europe have fallen more in line with Washington's.
      The shift is the culmination of a series of steps in which Beijing may have at times underestimated the extent to which it was pushing Europe away, but also appeared prepared to pay that price.
      But it is a significant blow for Beijing's ideal vision: a Europe with robust China ties that provides a counterbalance to American power and posture.
      "China and the EU should act as two major forces upholding world peace, and offset uncertainties in the international landscape," Xi told EU leaders at a summit in April, urging them to reject "rival-bloc mentality."
        But those words appeared to fall flat with the European side, which focused instead on pressing China to help broker peace in Ukraine. "The dialogue was everything but a dialogue. In any case, it was a dialogue of the deaf," EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said afterward.

        Downward spiral

        Beijing had carefully crafted its relationships in Europe in recent decades -- creating a dedicated annual summit with Central and Eastern European countries and seeking inroads for its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, which won support from one G7 member when Italy signed on in 2019.
        US concerns about the risks of collaboration with China resonated in Europe. And European nations were themselves watching Xi's China grow increasingly assertive in its foreign policy, from the combative tone of its "wolf warrior" diplomats to the establishment of a naval base in Africa, rising aggressiveness in the South China Sea and toward Taiwan, and the targeting of companies or countries that ran foul of its line on hot-button issues.
        Allegations of major human rights violations in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang, and its dismantling of civil society in Hong Kong also played a role in shifting European perceptions, analysts say. Chinese officials have called allegations that it held more than a million Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in internment camps in Xinjiang "fabrications," and slammed discussion of these issues as "interference" in its internal affairs.
        The EU declared China a "systemic rival" in 2019 and ties have continued to fray since.