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EU-China Relations: Smoke, Mirrors and Reality

ARTICLES - 2 September 2020

China’s diplomacy has entered a game of hide and seek with the European Union in preparation for another virtual summit on September 13-14 between Xi Jinping and EU leaders - Ursula von der Leyen, Charles Michel and Angela Merkel, since Germany chairs the Council this semester.

One should first note that Beijing did not blink an eye after von der Leyen and Michel gave a blisteringly critical press conference on June 22, concluding another summit that ended without a joint communiqué. No answer from Beijing was probably the best short-term tactic, since the list of European grudges is so long. Although technical negotiations on a potential investment agreement deal have continued, there is little report of any progress – save perhaps on technology transfers: that is an issue where China fears new restrictions, and it is therefore mostly a Chinese ask, not a European one. Market access, subsidies and SOEs are issues on which there is no sign of China intending to budge. Meanwhile, of course, European public opinion has greatly soured on China, for reasons known to all: Xinjiang, Hong Kong, military posturing or violence against several Asian neighbors, the denial of responsibility on Covid-19 and a crude "mask diplomacy", the attacks or threats on several European governments – this year, it is the Czech Republic and United Kingdom’s turn, but a dispute with Sweden also lingers.

It is against this background that Foreign Minister Wang Yi has just concluded a tour of China’s four main export destinations in Europe – Italy, France, the Netherlands and Germany, with Norway, a non-EU country thrown in. Oddly, it is on the last day of this tour that another coming trip – this time by Yang Jiechi, Wang’s predecessor and now Politburo member in charge of foreign policy, was announced, reportedly to Greece and Spain.

European public opinion has greatly soured on China, for reasons known to all: Xinjiang, Hong Kong, military posturing or violence against several Asian neighbors, the denial of responsibility on Covid-19 and a crude "mask diplomacy".

Where they do not go is as notable as where they do go: not one Central and East European country is included, confirming that the 16 + 1 process isn’t as substantial for China. Only Greece, the recent 17th member, gets a visit. Wang and Yang avoided the capitals where US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went recently (Austria, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia). They also skipped the United Kingdom, once China’s partner for a "Golden Era" of relations: the criticism by the UK government on issues such as Hong Kong and its decisions on 5G rankles, but in general, Beijing has not been very forthcoming to London since Brexit. And most of all, the Chinese envoys did not visit Brussels or meet with a single EU leader, such as Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who is their most obvious counterpart.

Equally notable is that Beijing sent the most senior envoy to Greece and Spain, generally not considered as the EU’s most influential members, while a lesser figure has visited what are generally seen as key member states inside the EU. It’s still unclear why this is so: but those that gave red carpet treatment to Wang may feel somewhat cheated.

And indeed, the pit stops by Wang Yi have yielded no tangible results. We should separate public pantomime from content. In France, the Netherlands,Norway or Germany, heads of government or ministers yielded to the bizarre "elbow bump" rendered necessary by Covid-19, but which gives Chinese propaganda wonderful pictures of Siamese brothers seemingly joined. In every way, France went furthest in this direction, because the French President provided his customary enthusiasm for photo contact, but also because Laurent Fabius, the former Foreign Affairs Minister and current President of the Constitutional Court went out of his way to side with China as a guarantor of multilateralism and a "balancer" of the United States. According to the official Chinese press, his words "echoed" Wang Yi’s. In the year when China broke the international treaty over Hong Kong, it was a sad display from a defender of constitutional law… There was no pushback or public display from other French political parties: this shows the current insularity of French politics. Oddly, Italy, which only 17 months ago was the first G7 country to sign a Belt and Road MoU with China, was the most lukewarm: Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte only took a phone call from Wang Yi, and Foreign Affairs Minister Luigi Di Maio successfully escaped the elbow bump during a photo op.

In the Netherlands, PM Mark Rutte had greeted Wang with a Confucian-like salute (head slightly tilted forward, hands joined) but stopped at that. Norway’s FM Ine Eriksen Søreide did indulge in the elbow bump - the country has long suffered Chinese sanctions for Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize, and Wang in fact did not refrain from warning Norway publicly against another Nobel award that might displease China! Finally, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas did have a rather expressionless elbow bump with Wang (both were wearing masks…) but the photos released for Angela Merkel only show her in a business-like encounter.

In France, the Netherlands and Norway, heads of government yielded to the bizarre "elbow bump" rendered necessary by Covid-19, but which gives Chinese propaganda wonderful pictures of Siamese brothers seemingly joined.

We mention these details because part of Beijing’s game is always about appearances – both for domestic consumption and in a customary imposition of rites to foreign dignitaries. The propaganda machine needs its newspeak and confirming pictures. It sufficiently got them in Europe. Its cyber machine also ensures that on top of Google searches, views from China’s MFA and official press usually come first, drowning out the communication by other governments. The CCP is a great believer in human conditioning at all levels.

But China’s headway did not extend further. Retracing the same stops on China’s tour, Wang Yi was faced with discreet or not so discreet opposition on many topics. In France, the opening of a second Taiwan representative office was announced a few days before the visit. Emmanuel Macron professed his preference for European 5G solutions on the eve of Wang’s arrival. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian officially criticized China on the South China Sea, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and human rights, and reiterated the "systemic rival" designation by the EU that China has been keen to suppress. Where Wang Yi vaguely broached multilateralism, blandly referred to the possibility of signing a free trade agreement with the EU, and used his French stop for a strong attack on the United States and "extremist forces", Le Drian coolly asked him about market access in China including for the agri-food industry, aerospace and civilian nuclear energy. In Italy, official statements emphasized Hong Kong. In the Netherlands, a parliamentary majority invited Wang Yi to come and discuss human rights – invitation declined. Dutch FM Stef Blok raised human rights, Hong Kong and the need to hold elections there, Xinjiang, Tibet and China’s national security law.

Germany presides this EU semester, and therefore holds its cards close to its chest in anticipation of the coming virtual summit with China.

In Germany, although FM Heiko Maas equivocated about 5G – Germany is now a hold-out which has yet to announce a general policy on this - and warned against economic decoupling with China, he was openly critical on Hong Kong and Xinjiang, denounced the personal threats made by Wang Yi a day before against the speaker of the Czech Senate after a Czech parliamentary visit to Taiwan: "threats don’t fit in here". Other German comments went further: for instance, Norbert Röttgen, chair of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, called on Europe to take a stand on Taiwan so as to defend the right of government leaders to visit Taiwan.

Germany presides this EU semester, and therefore holds its cards close to its chest in anticipation of the coming virtual summit with China.

One could go on. But the other reality is that, apart from vague talk, Wang Yi appears to have made no new offer or concession on any issue raised or on the economic crux of the EU-China relationship – where China would more effectively balance the mounting criticism of its political and strategic behavior. In effect, Europe and China are currently talking past each other. Managing to threaten Norway and the Czech during a single visit, as well as casting doubt on the origins of the coronavirus, is a performance which should alert us that "wolf warrior diplomacy", although it is now toned down, did not originate with some hot-headed ambassadors.

At this stage, it is likely that the European principals, from Brussels to Berlin and other capitals, still hope to negotiate breakthroughs on economic bread and butter issues: these are one of the raisons d’être of the European Union. To their credit, not a single European concession has surfaced during Wang Yi’s tour. These same leaders should remain alert not only to the fact that rule of law is the other pillar of the EU’s identity, but that the PRC may well frustrate them on both counts.

 

Copyright : Heiko Junge / NTB Scanpix / AFP

 

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