Europe turns against China

Europe turns against China

Once skeptical of the increasingly hostile U.S. stance toward China, the EU and its member states are adopting a cascade of new measures that bring their policies closer to those of the United States.

Why is this important: Beijing’s push for Europe to adopt “strategic autonomy” from the United States – in the hope that the EU maintain warmer ties with China – now looks like a moot point.

What is happening: Last week, the European Commission unveiled a proposal to ban products made with forced labor, after intense pressure from lawmakers and human rights activists concerned about forced labor in Xinjiang.

  • European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also criticized Chinese funding of European research institutions and announced a new “Defending Democracy” package to examine foreign funding of European academic institutions in order to “put in light on covert foreign influence and questionable funding”.
  • The United States implemented an import ban on all products made in Xinjiang earlier this year, and the Trump administration has exercised tighter control over foreign funding at American universities.

Enlarge: Germany is an essential reference. Berlin was once a strong supporter of close trade ties with China and therefore tended to avoid tensions with Beijing. But Berlin now appears to have taken a major shift on issues ranging from trade to human rights to direct military engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

  • Last week, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck promised “more naivety” in Germany’s trade with China. Habeck announced that his team was working on a new economic policy to reduce reliance on China in key industries and take a hard look at inbound investment from China, saying, “We can’t afford to make blackmailing”.
  • The German Foreign Ministry has also announced it was appointing a special representative to the Pacific nations, where China’s growing influence has alarmed Australia and the United States.
  • At the end of August, Germany joined the Pitch Black exercise as a full participant for the first time. All of the military exercises are held every two years off the northern coast of Australia with air forces from 17 nations, including the US, UK, France, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. The recent expansion of the exercise has raised questions about its potential role as a counterforce to China in the region.
  • The Chinese Communist Party-affiliated tabloid Global Times reported that some German media had warned the country against joining an “anti-China alliance” in the Indo-Pacific.

Rollback: European nations were largely skeptical of the Trump administration’s acerbic rhetoric against China.

  • In December 2020, the European Union struck an investment deal with China that ignored concerns about forced labor in the Chinese economy and would have strengthened economic ties between the bloc and China. That same year, by contrast, the Trump administration took more than 200 public actions to push back against Beijing and unbundle certain sectors of the US and Chinese economies.

  • But a major turning point in EU-China relations came in March 2021. The EU imposed sanctions on some Chinese officials for abuses in Xinjiang. Beijing retaliated by sanctioning members of the European Parliament and others, and in May 2021 the European Parliament voted to freeze the investment deal.

The Europe-China relationship has since dropped.

  • China’s “rock-solid” support for Russia during its invasion of Ukraine has soured the attitude of many Europeans towards Beijing.
  • Beijing’s continued crackdown on Hong Kong has also surprised many in Europe.
  • A United Nations report released in late August warning of “serious human rights violations” and possible “crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang has drawn sharp criticism from European leaders.

Yes, but: Trade ties between Europe and China are still strong and the EU underlined that cooperation on climate change with China is crucial.

What to watch: Taipei is urging the EU to adopt sanctions that would deter China from invading Taiwan, Reuters reports.

  • China, meanwhile, is forging economic and security relations on the periphery of Europe. Xi and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko have just announced an enhanced partnership, and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has deepened his ties with China.

Go further: France takes up the delicate challenges of China

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