China’s spent 2020 losing friends. But Brussels can’t afford to make an enemy of the world’s next hyperpower


The Covid-19 pandemic has meant that as an alternative of a red-carpet welcome from Germany, the different 26 EU member states and Brussels’ high figures, Chinese President Xi Jinping will as an alternative have to accept a video convention 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,” mentioned Steven Blockmans, appearing 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 catastrophe in that sphere. It hasn’t simply been China’s preliminary poor dealing with of a pandemic that started in its borders which have broken ties; Europe’s most senior politicians have been pressured to “think carefully about what kind of geopolitical actor China is trying to become,” mentioned an EU supply.

“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 safety regulation, its crackdown on the Uyghurs and worldwide provocation,” mentioned the supply.
Police patrol in Hong Kong on September 6, 2020 amid protests over the government's decision to postpone elections due to coronavirus, and the national security law.

Beijing sparked outrage earlier this 12 months when it imposed a brand new nationwide safety regulation on Hong Kong that bans secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with international forces. And it has additionally been criticized for the imprisonment since 2015 of as many as 2 million Muslim-majority Uyghurs and different Turkic minorities, in accordance to US State Department estimates, in huge re-education camps in Xinjiang, as half of a region-wide crackdown by Beijing.

Chinese officers have lengthy defended the crackdown in Xinjiang as essential to deal with extremism and consistent with Chinese regulation and worldwide apply.

Concern over China’s habits and the way dependable a associate it may be for Europe shouldn’t be solely felt at a Brussels stage. “2020 has definitely led to member states finding China more disagreeable,” mentioned a European diplomat who has labored on China relations in the previous 12 months. Our view is that China is much less occupied with growing a really equal partnership with Europe than (it’s with) making an attempt to substitute Western democracy with its personal 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 thoughts, it was a diplomatic catastrophe. Most notably in Germany, the place he was reprimanded over threatening a Czech politician for visiting Taiwan, urged to scrap the safety regulation in Hong Kong and did not even get to meet Merkel,” said Blockmans. “Throughout the journey, Hong Kong, the plight of the Uyghurs, Chinese propaganda over the virus saved arising. It’s the reverse of what you need to occur on a diplomatic journey.”

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 “should collectively cease (Mike) Pompeo from damaging world 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 want one another.”

“Both China and Europe want mutual help to uphold the course of of world governance and regional integration,” Xin wrote. “The worldwide group has been repeatedly shocked to see the edifice of world governance and regional integration torn down piece by piece. This has all been executed by the damaging forces of anti-globalization and radical populism inside 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 associate” 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 have interaction with points and make sturdy statements, as they’ve executed on Hong Kong currently. But in my expertise, it’s hardly ever backed up with agency motion,” 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 deal with China and partly the significance of its financial energy” — while it’s also not in the EU’s nature to make enemies.

The EU diplomat, to some extent, agrees: “At the second there’s little to no unity on what kind of relationship we finally need with China, so our precedence wants to be constructing bridges between member states so we’re in a position to act as one.” They also point out the difficulties of having Germany and Merkel driving the China initiative, saying that “German international coverage is to make no enemies and make as many associates as potential. As a consequence, they discover it onerous to wield financial energy, which is an issue as they’re the EU’s largest economic system.”

Europe’s decades-long dance with China has all the time been difficult. The EU acknowledges that with the US turning into more and more hostile to Beijing, there’s a emptiness for a superpower that may develop a technique enabling it to wield affect over China.

However, the window for understanding precisely what that technique is will get smaller by the day. If the EU is unable to discover a manner to steadiness relations between the US and China, earlier than lengthy it will likely be onerous to resist calls to facet with its long-standing Atlantic ally on the world stage.

Otherwise it dangers being squashed between the two superpowers.



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