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By the time Antony Blinken’s plane touched down in Brussels on Monday night, America’s top diplomat had already acquired an unlikely ally in his push for a deeper transatlantic partnership: China.
Over the past few months, China has sparked more division than consensus between Washington and Europe. While the U.S. has taken a tough line and imposed trade sanctions over the treatment of China’s Uyghur Muslim minority, Brussels has taken the opposite approach and in December agreed a landmark trade deal with Beijing that was intended to boost big European investors in China, particularly German car makers. Europe’s top leaders like France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel gave short shrift to U.S. President Joe Biden’s offer to form an alliance of democracies against China.
When Blinken meets European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Wednesday, however, he will find the mood has shifted and that he has an unexpectedly ripe opportunity to press Europe to reconsider its choice and join the Americans.
As he was flying in on Monday, EU-China diplomatic relations were nose-diving beyond Europe’s worst expectations. In retaliation for relatively modest EU sanctions on four Chinese officials, Beijing lashed back with swingeing counter-sanctions against a far greater number of European diplomats, parliamentarians and academics. Furious members of the European Parliament subsequently swore not to ratify the EU-China investment deal, while France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Denmark summoned their Chinese ambassadors.
For Blinken, the souring of ties is manna from diplomatic heaven. The sudden flare-up was doubly unexpected because many diplomats had long supposed that China’s core diplomatic priority in Europe was to drive a wedge between Brussels and Washington, precisely to stop them uniting.
“Those voices that have been calling for transatlantic collaboration have been strengthened [on Monday], while those calling for Europe to stand alone and dissociate itself from the U.S. have been weakened,” said Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
There are, of course, still significant obstacles to a fully fledged EU-U.S. alliance on China. Powerful pro-business interests in Europe are still more interested in the investment deal than China’s crackdown against Uyghurs and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. The biggest political grouping in the European Parliament would like to keep human rights and the trade pact safely compartmentalized as separate topics.
Crucially, the European Commission, which steers trade policy for the 27 EU member countries, has poured major political capital into the agreement with Beijing. Indeed, on the same day that Blinken can try to win round the Europeans, Maria Martin-Prat, the EU’s chief negotiator with China, will address a seminar co-organized by the China Chamber of Commerce to the EU, titled “Building a win-win: Exploring potential of the EU-China investment treaty.”
Sovereignty at stake
Despite these big commercial considerations, Benjamin Haddad, who leads the Europe Center of the Atlantic Council, a think tank, said the political stakes were now higher for the European camp.
“Europeans will have to step up their reaction against China after insults, intimidation and sanctions against scholars and MPs. This isn’t about siding with America, it’s about defending European sovereignty against a bully,” he said.
There are some immediate potential areas for cooperation. Brussels for example wants to work together on a “Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council” to set joint standards on new technologies, in a bid to prevent China from establishing economic dominance across a number of high-value sectors. Von der Leyen declared at the Munich Security Conference last month that “none of us wants China” to have rule-setting power over the EU and the U.S.
“The relationship with the EU is a key asset for America’s competition in China. In domains of trade or technology, the EU and the U.S. can work to shape common standards and norms to defend an open and liberal international system,” Haddad said.
Blinken still has his work cut out, however. Fundamentally, European leaders remain deeply skeptical about a Cold War-style containment of China, one of its most important trading partners in the world. Merkel said in late January that she “would very much wish to avoid the building of blocs,” while Macron has insisted that he wants to avoid a situation of “all together against China.”
China is also not the only impediment to a full diplomatic rapprochement. Tehran and Moscow are also bones of contention. Many European capitals deeply resent the way that U.S. sanctions have prevented their businesses from striking deals with Iran. In the case of Berlin, there is also the added complication of the Biden administration’s opposition to the Russia-backed Nord Stream 2 pipeline bringing gas into Germany.
With a similar eye to preserving trade interests amid political storms, the center-right European People’s Party, the biggest grouping in the European Parliament, is arguing that Europe’s commercial interests in China should not fall victim to showdowns over human rights sanctions.
“EU companies have needs that have to be secured in the context of the post-pandemic recovery and the new EU trade policy,” Iuliu Winkler, the point man on China in the European Parliament’s trade committee, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Smear campaigns and wolf warriors
China, however, does not agree that the EU can have its cake and eat it by separating business from high politics. “The European side cannot expect to, on the one hand, talk about cooperation and gain advantage while on the other hand harming China’s interests with sanctions,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters on Tuesday.
And indeed, on the EU side too, the diplomatic mudslinging only appears to be getting more intense. China summoned the EU and U.K. ambassadors to protest the sanctions on Tuesday. In France, the foreign ministry summoned the quintessential wolf-warrior Chinese Ambassador Lu Shaye, over insults leveled against French MPs and a researcher, as well as Beijing’s sanctions against MEPs.
“Ambassador Lu’s behavior is creating an obstacle to improving relations between China and France,” a French diplomatic official said.
Another French diplomatic official added that the trade pact was now clearly at risk: “If [Beijing] thought that the Europeans were the soft belly, they seem to have miscalculated,” the official said. “The Chinese response goes beyond European sanctions and I’m not totally sure that these measures are favorable to the EU-China investment agreement.”
Amid a flurry of questions on China during the European Commission’s daily press conference, EU spokespeople continued to compartmentalize EU-China relations into different policy areas. When asked if the sanctions showed China’s unwillingness to play by the rules-based international order, a spokeswoman dismissed it as “a question of a philosophical nature.”
Compare that with China’s appetite to confront the West directly. “Over the last few days, a tiny minority of Western forces took turn to get onstage and make some performances, launching smearing accusations against China,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Monday alongside his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
Presumably referring to the U.S. and the EU, Wang continued: “They ought to know that those days of telling stories and making up lies in order to interfere in China’s internal affairs, are long gone.”
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