At the European Union-China Summit this month, European officials, after years of kowtowing to China, finally stood their ground. EU-China relations are now on a new footing: Beijing no longer calls the shots. (Photo by Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

A much-anticipated EU-China Summit, the first since 2020, has ended as both a failure and a success: a failure because the two sides were unable to agree on anything of bilateral importance; a success because after years of kowtowing to China, European officials finally stood their ground. EU-China relations are now on a new footing: Beijing no longer calls the shots.

EU-China relations have long been on a downward trajectory due to a panoply of disputes, including the worsening human rights situation in China, Beijing’s spreading of disinformation to cover up the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, China’s unfair trade practices, and its economic bullying of EU member states.

The war in Ukraine has dramatically accelerated that dynamic. China’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion (it has even blamed the West for the war), only incensed European officials, who finally appear to understand that the EU can no longer pursue the middle path between Washington and Beijing. Europe’s inability to defend itself militarily implies that transatlantic cooperation will be essential to effectively respond to the challenges posed by China, Russia and other authoritarian states.

The EU-China Summit, held by video conference on April 1, was the first high-level bilateral meeting to take place in nearly two years. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Council Charles Michel, and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, met with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang in the morning, and with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the afternoon.

In a statement, European officials said that they raised the following concerns: China’s sanctions against members of the European Parliament; Beijing’s coercive measures against EU member states; the lack of access for European companies to Chinese markets; cybersecurity threats by nation state actors including China; and human rights violations in Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, Shanghai and elsewhere in China. Unsurprisingly, Chinese leaders refused to cooperate on any of these issues.

The most vexing issue was the Ukraine war, which represents a direct attack on the international rules-based order. European officials asked China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to use its influence with Russian President Vladimir Putin to bring an immediate end to the bloodshed. They also warned Beijing against helping Russia circumvent Western sanctions. Chinese officials rejected both requests.

The Chinese leaders, for their part, demanded that the European Parliament ratify an EU-China investment treaty that has been frozen due to the deteriorating human rights situation in China. Xi also called on the European Union chart an independent course from the United States on relations with China. The summit ended with no joint statement.

Borrell later rebuked the Chinese leadership:

«This was not exactly a dialogue, maybe a dialogue of the deaf. We could not talk about Ukraine a lot, and we did not agree on anything else.

«China wanted to set aside our difference on Ukraine, they didn’t want to talk about Ukraine. They didn’t want to talk about human rights and other stuff and instead focus on positive things.

«The European side made clear that this compartmentalization isn’t feasible. For us Ukraine is the defining moment on whether we live in a world governed by rules or by force.

«We condemn Russian aggression against Ukraine and support this country’s sovereignty, democracy, not because we follow the US blindly, as sometimes China suggests, but because it is our position. This was an important message for the Chinese leadership to hear.

«China cannot pretend to be a responsible great power but close its eyes or cover its ears when it comes to a conflict that obviously makes it uncomfortable. It knows very well who the aggressor is, although for political reasons, it refuses to name them.»

Von der Leyen added:

«We underlined that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not only a defining moment for our continent, but also for our relationship with the rest of the world. There must be respect for international law, as well as for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has a special responsibility. No European citizen would understand any support to Russia’s ability to wage war.»

Von der Leyen subsequently tweeted: «China’s reputation is at stake.»

The Chinese government responded by trying to split the transatlantic alliance:

«China and the EU, as two major forces, big markets and great civilizations, should increase communication on their relations and on major issues concerning global peace and development, and play a constructive role in adding stabilizing factors to a turbulent world.

«Xi called on the EU to form its own perception of China, adopt an independent China policy, and work with China for the steady and sustained growth of China-EU relations.»

Sources of Discord

At base, the current standoff in EU-China relations revolves around burgeoning evidence of massive human rights abuses by the Chinese Communist Party against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, a remote autonomous region in northwestern China. Human rights experts say that at least one million Muslims are being detained in hundreds of internment camps, where they are subject to torture, mass rapes, forced labor and sterilizations.

In November 2018, Western countries, including France, Germany and the United States, called on China to close down the detention camps there.

In March 2021, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada, mirroring the United States, announced (here, here and here) that they had imposed sanctions on Chinese officials accused of Uyghur-related human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

China responded by imposing sanctions (here, here and here) on more than two dozen European, British and Canadian lawmakers, academics and think tanks.

The sanctioned individuals, who are prohibited from entering China, include: German lawmaker Reinhard Bütikofer, who chairs the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China; four other Members of the European Parliament; five Members of the British Parliament; lawmakers from Belgium, Lithuania and the Netherlands; and scholars from Britain, Germany and Sweden. The sanctioned individuals have publicly criticized the Chinese government for human rights abuses.

China also sanctioned the EU’s main foreign policy decision-making body, known as the Political and Security Committee; the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights; the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies; the UK-based China Research Group; and the Alliance of Democracies Foundation, a Danish think tank founded by former NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

China contends that its sanctions are tit for tat — morally equivalent retaliation — in response to those imposed by Western countries. In fact, the European sanctions are for crimes against humanity, whereas the Chinese sanctions seek to silence European critics of the Chinese Communist Party.

On May 20, 2021, the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed (599 votes in favor, 30 against and 58 abstentions) a resolution to «freeze» ratification of the so-called EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). A statement said:

«The resolution emphasizes that any consideration by the European Parliament of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) … as well as any discussion on its mandatory ratification by MEPs, have ‘justifiably been frozen’ because of the Chinese sanctions.

«MEPs demand that China lift the sanctions before they consider the agreement…. They also remind the European Commission that MEPs will take the human rights situation in China, including in Hong Kong, into account when deciding whether to endorse the agreement or not….

«MEPs also call for re-balancing EU-China relations. They support a toolbox of autonomous measures such as legislation against distortive effects of foreign subsidies on the internal market, an import ban on forced labor goods as well as an enhanced and strengthened EU Foreign Investment Screening Regulation. The EU also needs to adequately address China’s cybersecurity threats and hybrid attacks.»

After seven years of negotiations, the CAI was concluded in great haste on December 30, 2020, by then German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. Other EU countries were excluded from the negotiations. Merkel reportedly wanted an agreement at any cost before Germany’s six-month EU presidency ended on December 31.

The lopsided agreement, which ostensibly aims to level the economic and financial playing field by providing European companies with improved access to the Chinese market, actually allows China to continue to restrict investment opportunities for European companies in many strategic sectors. The deal also lacks meaningful enforcement mechanisms for issues that the EU claims to care about, such as climate change and human rights, including forced labor.

At the time, Von der Leyen proudly declared that the CAI will «uphold our interests» and «promote our core values.» Seven days later, Chinese authorities launched a massive crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong.

Former Hong Kong Governor Lord Patten said the CAI makes a «mockery» of the EU’s ambitions to be taken seriously as a global player:

«It spits in the face of human rights and shows a delusional view of the Chinese Communist Party’s trustworthiness on the international stage.»

Since then, China has declared an economic war on Lithuania in retaliation for the country’s decision to allow Taiwan to open a representative office in its capital, Vilnius.

Taiwan has other offices in Europe and the United States, but they use the name of its capital city, Taipei, to avoid any semblance of treating Taiwan as an independent country. Beijing insists that the democratically self-ruled island is a part of the territory of the communist People’s Republic of China and has no right to the trappings of a state.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said that his country will not capitulate to bullying from China and that he is committed to defending the principles and values of democracy from attack.

Lithuania, which has a population of fewer than 3 million, regained independence in 1990 after almost half a century of occupation by the Soviet Union. Lithuania has become one of the strongest defenders of democracy within the European Union and NATO.

Chinese customs records released on April 20 showed that first-quarter imports from Lithuania had plunged 76.6% from the same period a year ago.

In January 2022, the European Union filed a complaint against China at the World Trade Organization (WTO) over its trade restrictions on Lithuania. The EU said that China’s actions were illegal under WTO rules and that attempts to resolve the dispute bilaterally had failed. «The EU is determined to act as one and act fast against measures which threaten the integrity of our single market,» EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said. The EU’s case has since been backed by Australia, Britain and the United States.

In another dispute, the European Union in February 2022 filed a legal challenge against China at the WTO over intellectual property rights. The EU argued that Chinese courts were preventing European companies from protecting their telecommunications technology patents. The EU, which said it had raised the issue with China on several occasions without resolution, accuses China of violating the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, (TRIPS), a foundation stone of the WTO.

Unsurprisingly, polls show that views of China have become more negative in many European countries. A Pew Research Center poll released in June 2021 found that 71% of those surveyed in Germany had negative views of China. In Britain, 63% said they viewed China unfavorably; majorities in Belgium (67%), France (66%), Italy (60%), Spain (57%), Sweden (80%) and the Netherlands (72%) said they had a negative view of China.

The Pew poll also found a strong transatlantic convergence of unfavorable views of China: in the United States, 76% said they had a negative view of China; in Canada, the number was 73%.

At the same time, EU-China trade relations are stronger than ever, with bilateral trade now close to 2 billion euros per day. EU exports to China reached 223 billion euros in 2021 (a nearly 80% increase since 2011), and EU imports from China jumped to 472 billion euros (an 84% increase over the past decade), according to the latest EU statistics.

In 2021, China was the largest source of EU imports and the third-largest destination of EU exports, according to EU data. Among EU member states, the Netherlands was the largest importer of goods from China, and Germany was the largest exporter of goods to China in 2021.

Expert Commentary

In an informative overview of EU-China relations, Theresa Fallon, Director of the Brussels-based Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies (CREAS), commented on how from human rights to Covid-19 to Ukraine, Europe’s ties with China relations are becoming increasingly frostier:

«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.»

Justyna Szczudlik, a China analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, argued that the European Union must begin treating China as a rival:

«What we’re observing now is an ongoing process by China and Russia to attempt to demolish the economic, security and normative order in Europe and beyond. This leads to the conclusion that China is neither a partner nor an economic competitor. War in Ukraine is a global issue challenging international norms, while the punitive actions against Lithuania are illicit and have nothing to do with competition. China’s authoritarianism and its alignment with totalitarian Russia, a country which has launched a full-scale war and is committing atrocities, clearly epitomizes the PRC as a systemic rival….

«It is high time we gave up the illusion that China is in any major respect different from Russia. China’s playbook is different, but its goals are convergent with Russia’s. The EU should treat China as a rival and, if Beijing supports Moscow materially, as a threat. The bloc should continue its work on effective defensive measures and prepare a detailed list of sanctions to be promptly imposed on China if it provides Russia with support. And it should cooperate with the United States in tracking Beijing’s potential behind-the-scenes assistance to Moscow while commencing the real work needed to reduce the EU’s dependence on China.»

The director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Janka Oertel, added:

«Relations between the EU and China have been deeply strained for years. Before the summit, there was some hope in Brussels and in member states’ capitals that China would be willing to help end Russia’s war on Ukraine or, failing that, at least commit to not undermining the sanctions that the United States, the EU, and their allies imposed on Russia. This could have, at a minimum, temporarily halted the downward spiral of EU-China relations in the past few years. That hope has been shattered.

«For the Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping, everything — including the war — is currently refracted through the lens of domestic politics and the global rivalry with the US. And, for now, Moscow remains Beijing’s most important partner in that dynamic. It has become clear over the past few weeks that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s failure to mastermind a quick military success does not deter Chinese leaders from their generally supportive stance. It seems highly unlikely that China will abandon Russia diplomatically or economically — despite the costs this will have for its relationship with Europe.»

In an interview with ChinaFile, Jacques deLisle, Director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania, said:

«The April Fool’s Day virtual EU-China summit should make clearer to China the problems with its venerable playbook for Europe and U.S.-European relations. First, Beijing appears to have assumed that it would benefit from divisions between the U.S. and Europe and within Europe; thus, Europe would not strongly support Washington’s toughening line toward China, including on human rights and international security…. Second, and evident at the summit, Beijing seems to have believed that, for Europe, economic issues would overshadow political ones, and that economic engagement with China would be seen as a clear net plus…. Third, China has sought the recognition, and claimed the deference, due a great power without establishing that it has the will and capacity to bear correlative responsibilities. While this has been a long-standing issue in U.S.-China relations, it had been less salient for Beijing’s interactions with Europe.

«Occurring against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European and U.S. response to it, and longer-emerging issues in China-Europe relations, the EU-China summit underscored how questionable these assumptions have become. The summit showcased the cooperation — unimaginable a few years ago — that the EU and the U.S. have achieved in addressing Putin’s war. Ukraine’s preeminence on the EU’s summit agenda demonstrated that Europe — like the U.S. — can prioritize non-economic issues in relations with China, even where matters are not immediately China-related. EU references to Beijing’s responsibility (in part as a Security Council permanent member) not to undermine sanctions against Russia underscored the point….

«Chinese summit and post-summit statements, like Beijing’s response to the Ukraine crisis generally, have made China seem much less than a capable and responsible power. Continuing commitments to limitless cooperation with Russia, suggesting blame for the war lay with NATO expansion, insisting Europe adopt an ‘independent’ China policy, and inflated — and hedged — self-presentation as a neutral peace-broker will not help China’s relations with the EU or the U.S.»

Shannon Tiezzi, Editor-in-Chief of The Diplomat, wrote:

«Even before the Ukraine war broke out, European leaders were raising more questions about China’s human rights violations (particularly the ramped-up campaign against the Uyghurs and the crackdown in Hong Kong), the militarization of the South China Sea, and repeated threats toward Taiwan.

«Beijing has constantly urged Europe to adopt an ‘independent policy toward China,’ something Xi repeated in the meeting on Friday. In blunter terms, China does not want Brussels to coordinate its China strategy with Washington. But in its constant repetition of this theme, Beijing misses the point: Europe has its own concerns about China, independently of the United States.

«China’s response to Ukraine has raised those concerns to an existential level: If Beijing continues to back Russia, the EU’s most direct security threat, how deep can the China-EU partnership really be?»

In an opinion article — «The War Makes China Uncomfortable: European Leaders Don’t Care» — The Economist concluded:

«Mr. Putin is trying to redraw Europe’s borders by force, and Mr. Xi will not condemn him. That is a direct challenge to the EU’s founding principles. It cannot be business as usual. Mr. Putin has shown Europe that it needs a new China policy.»

Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.

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