Europe’s relations with China are going from bad to worse.
Beijing’s decision to force national security laws on Hong Kong has outraged many in the EU for what they see as an attack on democracy. It places EU governments on the horns of a dilemma over how to respond as they shift from battling the COVID-19 pandemic to economic recovery, where trade with China is likely to play a big part.
That is set to leave Europe somewhere in the middle as the US weighs a range of penalties on China for encroaching further on Hong Kong’s freedoms.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said that sanctions were not the solution “to our problems with China.”
The bloc’s foreign ministers instead voiced “grave concern” at China’s moves in a joint statement issued after they met by video conference on Friday.
Yet European anger is palpable, and there are signs that China’s moves could have ramifications further down the line, by speeding European efforts to adopt a more unified industrial policy and influencing decisions on the role of Huawei Technologies Co in 5G networks.
A post-pandemic rescue plan presented by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron on May 18 aims to fortify Europe internally, but also contains measures to equip it to better face outside threats.
Meanwhile, diplomacy is at a low ebb, with China provoking European governments through aggressive social media posts over their handling of the pandemic, and some European officials criticizing Beijing in turn for its early response to the outbreak.
While preparations officially continue for the first-ever summit of the EU’s 27 leaders and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) this fall, China watchers from academia to industry say they doubt that the event billed as the highlight of a year of China-Europe engagement will even take place.
The upshot is a collection of friction points that might tip European leaders further toward a reassessment of China as more of a threat to Europe than viewing it as an ally against the administration of US President Donald Trump’s anti-globalization tendencies.
“Things are changing,” said Jean-Maurice Ripert, who was the French ambassador to China until late last year.
The pandemic led to “an awakening toward China’s expansionist ambitions,” he said. “The COVID crisis and what’s going on in Hong Kong are opening the eyes of those who didn’t believe it.”
It is an assessment shared by some leading politicians.
German Bundestag Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Norbert Roettgen, an outside contender to succeed Merkel as chancellor, says that Europe’s credibility is on the line over its response to China.
Germany’s position in shaping Europe’s response would be key, as the EU’s biggest economy and because it is to assume the bloc’s rotating presidency on July 1. EU relations with China were supposed to be the centerpiece of Germany’s presidency, but the pandemic has shifted priorities.
The Chinese move against Hong Kong caught everyone off guard, said a German government official with knowledge of the thinking in the German Chancellery.
That contributes to the dilemma Germany finds itself in: Merkel is not willing to join Trump’s attacks, which include repeated references to COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus,” but she is aware the security situation in Hong Kong could deteriorate rapidly, and nobody wants a new Cold War, said the official, asking not to be named as they were discussing internal strategy.
“China is not merely a partner and competitor, but a country with which we have profound differences with respect to the rule of law, freedom, democracy and human rights,” Merkel said in a speech on Wednesday.
While she referred to the “one country, two systems” formula for Hong Kong, the chancellor said that even such fundamental divisions should not prevent dialogue and cooperation.
Merkel’s high-wire balancing act has its critics.
Nils Schmid, a senior lawmaker with her Social Democratic Party coalition partner, accused the chancellor last week of having an outdated idea of China as an economic partner above all, and of underestimating the “systemic challenges” posed by Beijing.
Merkel has resisted a blanket ban on Huawei from 5G networks, a step favored by Roettgen among others.
Europe should have leverage over China given Beijing’s need for allies in its deepening standoff with the US. In reality, the bloc is divided between those such as Italy and Hungary, enthusiastic backers of Xi’s trademark Belt and Road Initiative, and others such as France and Germany, which are more wary in their dealings with Beijing.
One EU diplomat, who asked not to be named as they were discussing Friday’s foreign ministers call, described the bloc’s approach to China as “schizophrenic,” saying that it cannot decide if Beijing is a strategic partner or an aggressive rival.
Still, in their joint plan, Merkel and Macron are pushing for stronger European industrial defenses and a reduced dependence on China.
With its references to European champions — Macron spoke of “technological sovereignty” — a bloc-wide strategic healthcare industry and a focus on green and digital transitions, it represents much more than just the headline 500 billion euro (US$556.4 billion) rescue fund, UniCredit chief economist Erik Nielsen said.
For Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, the Merkel-Macron proposal, which still needs the agreement of the bloc’s members, “was all about China without talking about China.”
“This is exactly where we are in the conversation: a European strategic reassessment of the relationship with China, and the challenges that China poses not globally, but quite directly to the European economy,” she said.
In Paris, the official emphasis is on “rebalancing” European-Chinese relations toward greater reciprocal market access and the shared fight against climate change.
Questions about Chinese interference in Hong Kong put to the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs were directed to a tepid EU statement from last week in which the bloc said that it attached “great importance” to the preservation of the territory’s autonomy, but fell short of criticizing China.
Even such declarations matter, and work would still be under way to forge a common European position, Ripert said.
“The situation is potentially explosive, so it’s not unusual that Europe is taking its time,” he said. “Combative speeches are useless.”
Chinese officials have sought to downplay the potential effect of the national security legislation in Hong Kong, saying that it would only affect a small number of people who helped foment violent protests last year.
In an open letter to the territory’s residents, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) said that “the overwhelming majority of citizens” would continue to enjoy freedoms such as speech, the press and assembly, under laws being drafted by the Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC).
“The EU will just say something for political reasons but it’s really more concerned about the recession,” said Wang Yiwei (王義桅), a former Chinese diplomat at the Chinese embassy in Brussels. “They always talk about the rule of law, but actually this is the rule of law. Since Hong Kong is part of China, of course its future will be decided by the NPC. The EU should support this decision, but some lobbyists may be against it.”
Xi might have miscalculated by sanctioning an attack on Hong Kong’s democracy, said Reinhard Buetikofer, a German Green lawmaker who chairs the EU Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with China.
If Beijing decides to pursue its course in Hong Kong, no one has the leverage to stop it, so the message must be “that it will come with a cost,” he said in a Bloomberg Television interview.
“And I would assume that some of the issues that have been contentious around Europe, like the issue of are we going to allow Huawei to participate in building of the 5G networks, may look differently under the auspices of recent Chinese actions,” Buetikofer said.
The UK has proposed forming an alliance of 10 democratic countries to reduce their reliance on China for crucial 5G wireless technology, the Times of London reported on Friday.
The British government has approached Washington about creating a club of nations that would include the G7 plus Australia, South Korea and India, the Times reported, without saying where it got the information.
The UK has meanwhile opened a fresh review of Huawei’s role in its networks after the US moved to shut down the Chinese company’s access to US technology.
Those actions would influence German decisionmaking, Oertel said.
In Berlin, legislation is still being drawn up on 5G networks as part of an information technology security law, with negotiations on Huawei’s involvement likely in the coming weeks before a draft goes to cabinet, possibly before the summer break.
The debate over China more broadly has hardened, a German lawmaker familiar with the drafting said.
On May 24, as Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) warned the US against starting a “new Cold War” with China, the ministry posted a series of tweets in English calling for solidarity with Europe.
The pandemic requires both sides to “rise above ideological differences,” and China and the EU should be “comprehensive strategic partners.”
For Asia-Pacific Committee of German Business managing director Friedolin Strack dialogue is essential and “decoupling” from China is not an option.
Yet he, too, favors a stronger, more united Europe to better protect against issues such as the distortion of competition by state-owned enterprises.
Strack’s committee helped shape an influential paper by the Federation of German Industries last year that caused ripples across Europe and in Beijing by arguing for a more clear-eyed stance toward China.
Two months later, the EU labeled China a systemic rival.
Strack said that he now sees an opportunity for Europe as “a strong middle partner,” sharing US values while cooperating with China on multilateral solutions.
“There is a huge potential in positioning the EU as a stronger global player,” he said.
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