It’s not the kind of conversation China wants Brussels to have — let alone on the brink of President Xi Jinping prolonging his reign.
Just a day before the Communist Party congress concluded on Saturday and essentially dubbed Xi the Chinese leader for life, EU leaders officially began a collective rethink about the bloc’s increasingly strained relationship with China, displaying a sense of of invisible urgency before the Russian war against Ukraine. .
In a three-hour conversation, the 27 EU leaders, one by one, took the floor at the European Council meeting in Brussels to express their greatest concern.
But while the diagnosis was unanimous – Beijing became increasingly bellicose on the military and economic fronts, as it drew closer to a warmonger Russia – the recommended treatments were disparate.
Some equated the situation with the EU’s misunderstanding of its relationship with Russia. Others avoided the direct parallel, but still called for the EU to reduce its dependence on China’s technology and raw materials. Then there were those – including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz – who insisted that the EU must remain a beacon of global trade, even with China.
The differing opinions reflect the difficulties the EU will face in the years ahead as China moves from an imminent threat to an imminent threat.
“We must not repeat the fact that we have been indifferent, forgiving, superficial in our relations with Russia,” implored Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi at a closing press conference, conveying the message that many leaders offered during the discussion.
“Those that look like commercial ties,” he added, “are part of a general direction of the Chinese system, so they should be treated as such.”
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo echoed Draghi’s sense of alarm.
“In the past, I think we were too complacent as European countries,” he told reporters. “In some domains, [China is] a competitor — is a fierce competitor. In some domains, we also see that they have hostile behavior. … We must understand that in many economic domains, it is also geostrategic.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen went further and gave Xi a personal thumbs-down.
“We are witnessing a great acceleration of trends and tensions,” she said. “We have seen that President Xi continues to reaffirm the very assertive and self-reliant course that China has taken.”
Even the generally pro-Beijing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán agreed that the EU should become more “autonomous” during the discussion, according to another EU diplomat.
And German Chancellor Olaf Scholz – who is planning a trip to China next month and is set to become the first Western leader to greet Xi as the newly re-appointed leader – has also warned his fellow EU leaders about Beijing’s economic future, of course. according to an informed senior diplomat. of conversation without the phone.
Scholz told other leaders that China could well be the source of the next global financial crisis, as the country risks falling into what economists call a middle-income trap, according to the diplomat.
However, while everyone was eager to talk about their concerns about China, they were divided on how to deal with those fears.
The Baltic states, whose years of warnings about Russia’s revanchist intentions have fallen on deaf ears in much of Europe, are promoting a more hardline approach to China.
“The more threats from Russia they face, the less interested they are in working with China,” said one diplomat, referring to the Baltic countries.
Lithuania, for example, became the target of China’s trade embargo after it began to strengthen economic ties with Taiwan. Earlier this year, Estonia and Latvia followed Lithuania’s decision to leave Beijing’s 17+1 economic club, which they criticize as a Chinese attempt to divide EU countries.
On the other hand, Scholz continued to defend Germany’s need to negotiate with China despite the geopolitical shifts at play. Borrowing some rhetoric from the Trump era, he categorically rejected the notion of “decoupling.”
“The EU prides itself on being a union interested in global trade and is not on the side of those promoting deglobalisation,” he said.
Just this week, Scholz reportedly backed a deal by Chinese state-owned giant Cosco to acquire a share of the port of Hamburg – despite strong opposition from within his own government.
Asked about the port deal at a press conference, Scholz only said that “nothing has been decided yet”, adding that “many issues” still need to be clarified.
Possible frustration with Scholz’s trip to China – on which he also plans to bring a business delegation – was also reflected in the EU leaders’ meeting, albeit implicitly. Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš, for example, said China is “better treated when we are 27, not when we are… one on one”.
Furthermore, as has always been the case, EU countries are at odds over how closely to align themselves with the US’s more anti-China stance, especially after President Joe Biden’s administration characterized China as the “geopolitical challenge”. most consequential” of his country.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, in supporting requests to work with the US on technology development, warned of the Americanization of Europe in dealing with relations with China: “It is important for Europe to operate as self-reliant as possible, but also independently, and that there is equality and reciprocity, so that we are not a kind of extension of America, but that we have our own policy towards China.”
Meanwhile, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin called on the EU to work with all democracies against China’s rise in technology.
“We shouldn’t be building this kind of strategic and critical dependence on authoritarian countries,” she said when asked about the EU’s concerns about China. “We need in the future [to] work with other democratic countries as well to build this type of export routes together, with [the] United States, with Great Britain, with Japan, with South Korea, Australia, India, New Zealand, for example.”
Hans von der Burchard and Barbara Moens contributed reporting.
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