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The EU’s new defensive approach to a rising China

European Council President Charles Michel (R) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speak as they attend a news conference following a virtual summit with Chinese President in Brussels, on June 22, 2020. Yves Herman/Pool/AFP

Chinese officials have been repeatedly calling for closer cooperation with Europe, but the era of Covid-19 has made China-EU relations sour to an unprecedented low level since the two formally established diplomatic relations 45 years ago.

Instead of a celebration, the June 22 EU-China annual summit showed irreconcilable differences over issues such as Hong Kong’s newly-announced national security law, cybersecurity and human rights. In addition, nothing appeared noticeably conclusive on the economic front, where China has not responded to the EU’s call to finalize a much-needed Common Agreement on Investment, tackling the issues of state subsidies and procurement.

Cooperation on other critical subjects such as climate change, global governance (including reform of the World Trade Organization), and sustainable development seems limited to pure rhetorical language rather than concrete actions on the part of the Chinese side. Even Sino-European collaboration on Covid-related vaccines remains modest.

When Europe hardens its tone

Rather than a final EU-China joint communique, two differing statements were released in June, following the summit. President Ursula von der Leyen of the European Commission, stated “The relationship between the EU and China is simultaneously one of the most strategically important and one of the most challenging that we have” adding that the relationship with China was “not an easy one”.

As for Chinese president Xi Jinping, he insisted that China “wants peace instead of hegemony”, and added, “No matter how the international situation changes, China will take the side of multilateralism and adhere to the global governance concept of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits”.

Such comments are revealing in the sense that Europeans are trying their luck with a different approach to China, more defensive if not confrontational. In fact, politicians may not have a choice following Covid-19. The Chinese government is consistently seen by European public opinions as the most responsible for the severity of the pandemic. According to a recent poll, 60% of French and Britons and 47% of Germans see the Chinese government as a negative influence in the world and their opinion has worsened through the pandemic. Unlike the 2008-2010 financial crisis, which had led to multiple take-overs by Chinese state-owned enterprises in southern Europe, this time Europeans do not seem attracted by prospective Chinese investments. Nor are Chinese investors currently willing to invest: China’s share of FDI stock stands at less than 3% on average across the EU.

Meanwhile, the controversy around Chinese medical assistance during the peak of the pandemic has led to more confusion and backpedalling on the part of European politicians.

China, from partner to Europe’s “systemic rival”

Early this year, Brussels officials were still hoping that Germany would be hosting a 27+1 leaders’ summit in Leipzig with Xi Jinping. Angela Merkel’s approach has been very much about light criticism and face-saving exercises vis-a-vis Chinese leaders, and this has had a lot to do with the two countries’ fairly balanced trade relationship. For years, German machine tools and cars have been in high demand in a fast-growing China, increasing many German industrial companies’ profitability.

Some experts feel that Merkel’s reluctance to antagonize Beijing risks undermining the EU’s push for a common policy toward China and perpetuating a situation where member states look out mainly for their own interests, often to the detriment of a common European front. For now, the Leipzig summit has been postponed indefinitely due to the lack of progress with China.

Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel (C-L) and Chinese premier Li Keqiang (C-R) during the German-Chinese Dialogue Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on September 6, 2019. Andrea Verdelli/AFP

For the past three years, the EU has embarked on a more realistic approach to China. It has pushed for a better coordination and defense over economic issues, including foreign direct investments, state-aid and technology transfers. Not only the European Commission created a new FDI screening mechanism, to be operational in October, it has also issued guidelines on 5G technology and a white paper on foreign subsidies. In addition, it launched a connectivity strategy with the hope of offering a European alternative to China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”.

The year 2019 was considered to be a turning point in the EU’s bilateral relations with China, with the publication in March of an EU-China Strategic Outlook which labeled China a “systemic rival”.

The virtual summit between Xi Jinping and Ursula von der Leyen eventually took place, but the lack of progress has created a growing frustration among European leaders, following a significant propaganda effort from Beijing to promote its agenda, including its handling of the pandemic, through social media and Chinese embassy websites. This battle of narratives was directly addressed by Josep Borrell, high representative for foreign affairs, on several occasions. A report on disinformation was even produced by the European External Action Service. In her recent statement, von der Leyen also alluded to the Commission’s growing concerns over “cyber-attacks on computing systems and hospitals”.

Is a common transatlantic approach to China possible?

The tougher discourse from Brussels is a far-cry from the Trump Administration’s hard-line approach, as the latter has been accompanied by trade sanctions and restrictions against Chinese companies on US soil, including Huawei.

The language from Washington may not be very diplomatic, but it also reflects Capitol Hill’s hawkish approach and has led US allies – including a majority of Europeans – to reassert their approach to China’s rise. From either side of the Atlantic, it is unlikely that major moves will take place between now and the November presidential election. Should Joe Biden be elected president, some changes could be expected leading to a more transatlantic approach.

As for China, it ultimately sees its relationship with the US as its number one priority, which explains Beijing’s current wait-and-see stance.

A version of this text was published by the Institute for International Political Studies (Italy).

This article was originally published in French

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