In worsening China-US dispute, what role should Europe play?

September 22, 2020 07:30
Photo: Bloomberg

Although China and the European Union do more than a billion euros of business a day, the meeting in cyberspace between their leaders on September 14 showed just how far apart they are in political terms.

China’s pitch, as made clear in a Global Times commentary before the video conference, was that at a time when the United States was dismantling the institutional structure of global governance, it was urgent for China and the European Union to join forces “to resist these dangerous currents.”

If China hoped that the meeting would help to get the European Union on its side in the worsening conflict with the United States, it was disappointed.

Days later, reports surfaced of plans for the European Union and the United States to hold a dialogue on China.

The video conference itself didn’t go too smoothly. True, the two sides – Chinese President Xi Jinping faced Charles Michel, President of the European Council, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country holds the EU’s revolving presidency – agreed to conclude talks before the end of 2020 on an investment agreement that they had been negotiating for seven years.

The EU wants China to open itself up to European investment, just as Europe, perhaps naively, opened its economy to China long ago. Today, the Chinese insist that theirs is still a developing country, and ask the Europeans to meet them “halfway,” even though it is widely seen as a superpower.

After the two-hour meeting, von der Leyen explained at a press conference in Brussels that “with market access it is not a question of meeting halfway, but rebalancing the asymmetry,” adding: “We need China to move on those issues.”

In Berlin, Chancellor Merkel explained that Europe’s “demand for reciprocity, for a level playfield field,” is very much justified in view of China having become much stronger over the last 15 years.

For years, the Europeans were reluctant to offend China, preferring to keep quiet while the Americans complained loudly about a lack of reciprocity, about forced transfers of technology and other issues. But, beginning last year, the Europeans have taken a harder line and have publicly identified China as a “systemic rival.”

At the September 14 meeting, they also brought up human rights issues, including in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

According to Xinhua, the state news agency, they were rebuffed by Xi, who was quoted as saying: “China firmly opposes any person or force creating instability, division and chaos in China, and meddling in China’s internal affairs by any country.” He added that the Chinese people will not accept “an instructor” on human rights.

Nonetheless the European Union evidently intends to press ahead on human rights issues. Two days after the Xi meeting, von der Leyen, delivering her first State of the Union address, pledged that the European Commission would put forward a European Magnitsky Act.

The Global Magnitsky Act, passed by the United States Congress in 2016, allows the U.S. government to sanction foreign officials implicated in human rights abuses. Since then, various countries have enacted their own versions of the legislation.

In her address, von der Leyen also referred to “new beginnings with old friends,” saying that Europe was ready to build a new trans-Atlantic agenda with the United States, something that probably wasn’t what China wanted to hear.

What accounts for Europe’s change in attitude towards China?

Part of the answer can be found in events that occurred prior to the summit, in particular, the visit by Foreign Minister Wang Yi to five European countries to pave the way for the video conference.

While he was in Norway, Wang warned against giving this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Hong Kong’s protesters. This reminded his listeners of what had happened in 2010, when the prize went to the imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who died of liver cancer in 2017, still incarcerated. China also imposed sanctions on Norway.

Wang was in Germany when news reached him of the visit to Taiwan by the speaker of the Czech Senate, Milos Vystrcil. Wang reacted by saying that Vystrcil would “pay a high price” for making the trip.

The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, admonished the Chinese official, saying “threats do not fit in here.”

That is actually good advice, particularly as China tries to cope with multiple challenges emanating from the United States. China should strengthen its ties to Europe and refrain from brandishing the stick of threats and punishments, which only breeds resentment. Such an approach is more likely to win it support from the European Union, and from other parts of the world as well.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.