This year has left the European Union very confused over what to do about China. At the start of the year, the two parties hoped to formalize their economic and strategic partnership at a landmark summit in Leipzig, hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, marking a historic breakthrough in China-EU relations.
The Covid-19 pandemic has meant that instead of a red-carpet welcome from Germany, the other 26 EU member states and Brussels’ top figures, Chinese President Xi Jinping will instead have to settle for a video conference with Merkel and the Presidents of the EU Commission and Council.
“Obviously having a video call with just three leaders is a pretty lame consolation prize for China. We don’t even know if there will be a final communiqué,” said Steven Blockmans, acting director of the Centre for European Policy Studies.
Most long-term observers of EU-China relations agree that 2020 has been a bit of a disaster in that sphere. It hasn’t just been China’s initial poor handling of a pandemic that began in its borders that have damaged ties; Europe’s most senior politicians have been forced to “think carefully about what kind of geopolitical actor China is trying to become,” said an EU source.
“In our view, China has used the fact that so much of the world is distracted by the virus to accelerate its objectives in places like Hong Kong with the security law, its crackdown on the Uyghurs and international provocation,” said the source.
Beijing sparked outrage earlier this year when it imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong that bans secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. And it has also been criticized for the imprisonment since 2015 of as many as 2 million Muslim-majority Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities, according to US State Department estimates, in enormous re-education camps in Xinjiang, as part of a region-wide crackdown by Beijing.
Chinese officials have long defended the crackdown in Xinjiang as necessary to tackle extremism and in line with Chinese law and international practice.
Concern over China’s behavior and how reliable a partner it can be for Europe is not only felt at a Brussels level. “2020 has definitely led to member states finding China more disagreeable,” said a European diplomat who has worked on China relations in the past year. Our view is that China is less interested in developing a truly equal partnership with Europe than (it is with) trying to replace Western democracy with its own political system and eat our economies from the inside.”
The low point of 2020 came last month when Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, embarked on a trip around Europe to meet key figures ahead of Monday’s virtual summit. Instead of being greeted with the warmth Chinese delegates have become accustomed to, however, he got an earful.
“To my mind, it was a diplomatic disaster. Most notably in Germany, where he was reprimanded over threatening a Czech politician for visiting Taiwan, urged to scrap the security law in Hong Kong and didn’t even get to meet Merkel,” said Blockmans. “Throughout the trip, Hong Kong, the plight of the Uyghurs, Chinese propaganda over the virus kept coming up. It’s the opposite of what you want to happen on a diplomatic trip.”
Balance to the US
This disappointment will have been deeply felt in Beijing. At the time of Wang’s visit, the state-run China Daily newspaper argued that China and the EU “must jointly stop (Mike) Pompeo from damaging global stability,” referring to the US Secretary of State, one of Washington’s top China hawks and a long-time bugbear for state media.
Beijing views the EU as a much-needed counterweight to an increasingly aggressive US. It’s a view shared by some on the continent, as wary as they may be at getting too close to China. In a piece published Wednesday by the Global Times, a state-backed tabloid with strong links to the Chinese military, Europe analyst Xin Hua argued that “China and Europe need each other.”
“Both China and Europe need mutual support to uphold the process of global governance and regional integration,” Xin wrote. “The international community has been repeatedly shocked to see the edifice of global governance and regional integration torn down piece by piece. This has all been done by the destructive forces of anti-globalization and radical populism within the West.”
Of course, the EU has previously acknowledged China’s shortcomings. In 2019, Brussels published a paper on its China strategy in which it described the country as both a “strategic partner” and a “systemic rival.” It was a significant admission that if the EU wanted to have a deep, formalized relationship with China, it would need to walk a tightrope between the conflicting realities.
What’s made 2020 uniquely tricky is that China’s behavior has both exacerbated its status as a systemic rival, while simultaneously strengthening the EU’s belief that a strategic partnership is essential.
Brussels’ interest in China isn’t merely economic. Obviously, direct foreign investment and market access is incredibly attractive to numerous faltering European economies. But strong relations with Beijing is also strengthen Europe’s drive to become a major geopolitical player on both diplomacy and climate change.
EU officials reasonably point out that you don’t get China, the world’s largest polluter and among the worst human rights offenders, to sit around a table without a significant carrot. Disengagement, they claim, is no way to bring about global change on anything. They also suggest the EU’s economic leverage uniquely enables it to sit on a call with Xi, where Merkel and co will be able to raise issues like human rights at the highest level. Not to do so would be irresponsible.
However, critics fear that the EU’s political division, geopolitical ambition and economic fragility make it ill equipped to stand up forcefully to Beijing. “The Commission does like to engage with issues and make strong statements, as they have done on Hong Kong lately. But in my experience, it is rarely backed up with firm action,” said Benedict Rogers, chairman of Hong Kong Watch, a London-based human rights group. He believes the EU’s “hesitance is partly down member states not agreeing on how to handle China and partly the significance of its economic power” – while it’s also not in the EU’s nature to make enemies.
The EU diplomat, to some extent, agrees: “At the moment there is little to no unity on what type of relationship we ultimately want with China, so our priority needs to be building bridges between member states so we are able to act as one.” They also point out the difficulties of having Germany and Merkel driving the China initiative, saying that “German foreign policy is to make no enemies and make as many friends as possible. As a result, they find it hard to wield economic power, which is a problem as they are the EU’s largest economy.”
Europe’s decades-long dance with China has always been complicated. The EU recognizes that with the US becoming increasingly hostile to Beijing, there is a vacancy for a superpower that can develop a strategy enabling it to wield influence over China.
However, the window for working out exactly what that strategy is gets smaller by the day. If the EU is unable to find a way to balance relations between the US and China, before long it will be hard to resist calls to side with its long-standing Atlantic ally on the global stage.
Otherwise it risks being squashed between the two superpowers.