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A View from Europe

From human rights to Covid to Ukraine, EU-China relations are only getting frostier.

Theresa Fallon

In consideration of The Elements of the China Challenge, Policy Planning Staff, U.S. Department of State

The traditional strategy toward Europe by the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) has been to try to weaken the transatlantic alliance by dividing Europe from the United States. Beijing has used economic incentives to induce European countries to pursue friendly relations with China. It has also encouraged European strategic autonomy—that is, European independence from America in the fields of security and defense. More, China has tried to divide Europe internally. But in recent years these strategies have met with obstacles.

In both the political and economic spheres, China has carefully cultivated European elites and influence networks. In Germany, the auto industry has become heavily reliant on sales to the PRC market. Until recently, former British Prime Minister David Cameron headed an investment fund linked to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The head of Ericsson, the Swedish electronics company, lobbied the country’s trade minister to allow Huawei, its Chinese competitor, to enter its market as a way to protect Ericsson’s business interests in the PRC.

European companies have continued to export weapons and dual-use goods to the PRC despite an EU arms embargo on that country. For instance, until at least 2020 the German company MTU Aero Engines and the French branch of the Volkswagen subsidiary MAN were selling China the silent diesel engines that helped the PLA improve its stealth submarines and navy warships.

Beijing promised to make substantial investments in Europe, especially in the center and east of the continent. In 2012, before the BRI, a “16+1” sub-regional grouping was launched in order to cultivate special relations between Beijing and the region’s former communist countries. The group was made up of eleven EU member states and five possible accession states. When Greece joined in 2019, China’s President Xi Jinping described it as the “dragon’s head” of a strategic land-sea corridor between Europe and Russia.

After the 2008 financial crisis, China had already started to invest in the main Greek Port of Piraeus, which later became one of the key nodes in the BRI, connecting China with Europe by land and sea. This connection allowed China to establish a foothold in southern Europe, with plans to upgrade the rail line from Piraeus to Budapest.

Although there were initially great expectations for substantial Chinese investment to benefit all countries of the 16+1, the bulk of investment ultimately went to non-EU member Serbia. Then, promise fatigue set in, with many countries feeling that Beijing had overpromised and underdelivered. Evidence of this disillusionment emerged at the virtual meeting of the 16+1 with Xi in 2020, when many countries sent only lower-level officials. Eventually, Lithuania left the group altogether in 2021. This defection, combined with Vilnius’ opening a Taiwan office, led Beijing to try to punish Lithuania through economic sanctions and blocking trade of Lithuanian goods with other nations.

At the end of 2020, Beijing dangled in front of the EU the prospect of a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) that would guarantee European companies enhanced access to the PRC market. The agreement would especially benefit German auto, pharmaceutical, and chemical companies and French medical service providers. The pact would make the EU more dependent on the Chinese market and pull it farther from the United States. President Xi made some final concessions to wrap up the deal in the last days of 2020, before the U.S. administration of President Joe Biden took office.

Though the EU and China reached political agreement on the CAI, however, they never signed it. Opponents in the European Parliament noted that the agreement slighted labor rights. They took particular offense at the stipulation that the heads of European political foundations in China, like the Konrad Adenauer and Friedrich Ebert foundations, had to be Chinese nationals. Then, on March 22, 2021, the EU imposed sanctions on China because of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. China promptly responded with measures against all twenty-seven ambassadors from the EU’s Political and Security Committee and their family members, along with five members of the European Parliament, representing all of its parties. It was now certain that the European Parliament would never ratify the CAI.

Covid-19 led to a further decline in the EU’s opinion of China. The European public disliked Beijing’s use of personal protective equipment (PPE) as a tool of Chinese “mask diplomacy” and, more generally, noted the PRC’s lack of transparency in the early stages of the pandemic, which likely increased the severity of the disease. Covid also turned the narrative of Beijing’s achievements in public health into a story of often malapropish disinformation. For example, after years of cultivating Italian support, Beijing alleged that Italians had stood on their balconies singing the PRC national anthem in Chinese. This was not true. Worse, it was easily proven to be false. It was also discovered that the “Grazie Cina” campaign on social media was not a grassroots outpouring of Italian gratitude to China but a Chinese disinformation campaign that used bots to spread a false narrative of Italian thanks for China-supplied PPE.

In a last straw, Beijing accused Italy of being the epicenter of the pandemic and the originator of Covid.

The Covid pandemic exposed Europe’s overdependence on China for PPE and medical equipment. Many EU officials were especially irked by Beijing’s seeming amnesia about the tons of PPE that Europe had sent to Wuhan as aid at the beginning of the pandemic. At the time, Chinese officials asked the EU not to mention the gift. Later, however, Beijing misrepresented EU purchases from China as Chinese aid. CCP officials also insisted that European governments sign testimonials praising China’s help in their time of need; this was especially resented as it became clear that much of the Chinese PPE was of low quality.

After the elections of September 2021, the German government changed. For the previous six years, China had been Germany’s biggest trading partner; and for the sixteen years of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s tenure, Germany had downplayed human rights issues in the PRC in favor of business interests and declined to side too openly with the United States against China. When, in February 2021, President Biden gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference declaring that the United States was “back,” Merkel and France’s President Macron said they would not be part of a democratic bloc to balance China.

The new coalition government that came to power in Germany after the 2021 elections took a much clearer stance in criticizing China’s human rights abuses and showed a stronger transatlantic orientation. Upon taking office, Germany’s new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, immediately warned her Chinese counterpart about “fundamental differences over human rights,” signaling a clear departure from Merkel’s approach. After meeting with her U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, she said, “Coordination between us could not be closer.”

On February 4, 2022, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Beijing. They issued a joint statement that declared their relationship had “no limits” and outlined the ways in which they would reshape the international order. China recognized that Russia had legitimate security concerns and opposed NATO expansion. Putin, having secured Chinese backing for his foreign policy, transferred some of his military forces from the Russian Far East to the west of the country. On February 24, he attacked Ukraine.

From the PRC’s point of view, Ukraine poses a dilemma. On the one hand, China supports its Russian partner; on the other, China needs to uphold the principle of territorial integrity because of its position on reunification of Taiwan as well as its claims on Tibet, Xinjiang, and other territories. EU High Representative Josep Borrell has even called on China to mediate in the conflict, though China can hardly act as a neutral party.

Since 2019, the EU has pursued a multifaceted approach to China—viewing China as a partner, a competitor, or a systemic rival, depending on the issue. China is a partner when it comes to climate change, a competitor on trade, and a systemic rival on human rights and governance issues. However, China is increasingly seen as less and less of a partner and competitor and more of a systemic rival: Public opinion is forcing EU leaders to rethink their relations with Beijing.

At the EU-China summit last Friday, the differences between Brussels and Beijing were palpable. The summit had no deliverables, no joint statement, and no joint press conference. Beijing would not clarify that it would not circumvent sanctions imposed on Russia over Ukraine. The distance between the EU and China seems to be increasing, with no turnaround in sight.

Theresa Fallon is founder and director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies, based in Brussels, and adjunct professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

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