Under the pressure of globalisation, both China and Europe have active strategies to internationalise their higher education systems. This paper explores the cultural and institutional constraints of these strategies in both territories, analysing their impact on the cooperation and competition among higher education institutions. The article focuses on the historical and current practices of internationalisation in Europe and China, the strategic goals underlying these practices, and the implications of internationalisation strategies in constraining the choices and actions of academic leaders in Chinese and European higher education institutions. This article contributes to the literature on Chinese and European cooperation in higher education by analysing the points of conflict and opportunities for growth. Despite differences (e.g., centralised vs. decentralised systems, top-down vs. bottom-up decision-making processes, and the roles of leadership in the governance of higher education institutions), there is a common interest in promoting economic competitiveness, developing a knowledge-based society, advancing research, attracting and retaining talent, and reducing regional inequalities. The paper concludes that cooperation is possible in specific areas in which neither China nor Europe can succeed alone with the same impact that would be possible with cooperation.