“Analysts have long talked about the end of an American-led system and the arrival of an Asian century. This is happening right now, “said Josep Borrell to a group of German diplomats on Monday, adding that the coronavirus pandemic could be seen as a turning point and that” the pressure to choose sides is increasing. “
In remarks that seem to confirm that the European Union will accelerate the transition to a more independent and aggressive position towards Beijing, he said that the bloc of 27 countries “should follow our own interests and values and avoid being exploited by the government. ‘either “. .
“We need a more robust strategy for China, which also requires better relations with the rest of democratic Asia,” he added.
The EU has been reluctant to rally to Donald Trump’s confrontational stance towards China, but Beijing’s attack on Hong Kong’s independence, its growing willingness to rally to European populists and its refusal to open up markets have led to a change in mentality, analysts said.
Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition and a key figure in how Europe will deal with China in the future, recently noted what she describes as a lack of reciprocity. “In the western part of Norway where I grew up, we were told that if you invite a guest for dinner and they don’t invite you back, you stop inviting them,” said she explained. She said Europe must “be more assertive and confident about who we are”.
Borrell previously admitted that the EU was naive about certain aspects of China, but said it was coming to an end. In an article published this month in many European newspapers, he called for greater collective discipline towards China.
Already a group of senior political officials in France and Germany are increasingly expressing their criticism of China, seeing echoes of Russian efforts to divide the bloc by a mixture of disinformation or harassment of right-wing populists who, ideologically, should be anathema to the Chinese communists.
No one yet knows how far this “new realism” will take the EU by changing its economic relations with China. Daily EU imports from China amount to € 1 billion (£ 895 million), but economists say there are already signs that some trade is not returning.
On issues ranging from supply chains to telecommunications security, diversification has become the watchword. Borrell said he was surprised to find that all of Europe’s paracetamol supplies come from China. The German cabinet has already approved new laws to prevent foreign takeovers of medical companies. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said that “some companies are vulnerable, some technologies are fragile and could be bought at low prices by foreign competitors. I won’t let that happen. Sweden’s relations with China are on the verge of collapse.
Andrew Small, senior associate policy researcher at the European Council’s Foreign Relations think-tank, said that Beijing has until recently been able to hide behind the EU’s suspicions of Russia.
He wrote: “He benefited from the contrast that many Europeans have established between China and Russia. From this point of view, while Russia was actively hostile to the EU, China only sought to thwart European unity on a set of narrowly sinocentric issues; whereas Russia was thriving in chaos, China could be seen as an actor in the status quo during crises; and while Russia has pushed disinformation, targeted European citizens and sought to bring populists to power, China has focused on positive image management and capturing elites behind the scenes. “
After all, China helped Europe’s economic recovery in 2007-2008 by buying debts and running out of assets after the financial crash. He did not join Russia to be part of Nigel Farage’s Brexit choir and he avoided Russia’s support for Ukraine.
The EU’s natural desire to be tougher on China has been curbed by repulsion against Trump’s methods and by the fear that if Europe dumped China, its main partner would have to be Trump.
A key change occurred in the spring of 2019 when, frustrated by the difficulties of access to the Chinese market and alarmed by the nationalist leadership of Xi Jinping’s leadership, the EU called China a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance” in a historic strategy document. Even now, it is used in evidence by the United States Department of State for similarities to its own position.
Many factors have caused a change of heart. The expected windfall from China’s Belt and Road Initiative has generally failed to materialize as China’s own economy slowed. “The period of romantic optimism was over,” said Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs. “Four years ago, it was all about the economy, trade, the belt and the road, increased investment. Now it’s more balanced. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, notably lobbied for change, urging Europe to turn to Russia for an alliance.
But it was not immediately clear to what extent the 2019 strategy document would translate to the nation state level. In the same month of publication, Italy became the first European country to sign a belt and road investment memorandum with China. Many European countries have individually given Huawei the green light to manage their 5G networks.
Beijing itself wanted to stop the slipping of relations, declaring that 2020 would be the year of Europe with two great summits and many ceremonial signatures. China has also continued to woo Eastern Europe in what has been called the 17 + 1 group.
Philippe Le Corre, a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that Covid was “the game changer” by ultimately changing European perceptions of China. “Chinese diplomacy has backfired. He did not recognize the initial aid that Europe has given to China, perhaps due to the fact that the regime was embarrassed by foreigners providing aid. There were fake videos in Rome of Italians singing the Chinese national anthem. It was very strange. “
Small suggested that Beijing seemed to have decided to use Europe at a time of deep internal tension in a vast information battle over the alleged inadequacies of Western democracy. “It was not enough to pretend that the Chinese Communist Party had succeeded; you had to see others fail, “he said.
Borrell called China’s “generosity policy” a blow and the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic arm, went into action accusing China of carrying out a “global misinformation campaign to hijack blaming the pandemic epidemic and improving its international image. ”
China’s behavior has also turned against European public opinion. A poll published by the Körber-Stiftung think-tank has shown that 71% of Germans believe that “greater transparency in China would have alleviated the corona epidemic”. In total, 68% of Germans said their opinion of the United States had deteriorated in the past year, but China’s reputation had also suffered, dropping 11%. In France, an Ifop / Reputation Squad poll carried out at the end of April revealed that only 12% considered China to be the best placed to meet the challenges of the next decade.
The main exception is Italy, but it has long been more favorable to China and opinion seems fluid.
The question for European politicians now is how to harness this new consciousness to resist China without falling into Trump’s Cold War. The first step is to compile what is described as an inventory of dependence on China, and investment selection reviews are currently underway in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. The Mayor promised to “strengthen our sovereignty in strategic value chains”, such as those in the automotive, aerospace and pharmaceutical industries.
The next test is China’s own leadership. Veterans and advisers are not seduced by what has been described as “the soprano school of diplomacy in China”. Chinese scientist Lanxin Xiang admits that he has pushed a little dust, arguing that this undermines China’s strategic objective of transforming the EU into a buffer zone against the United States.
Likewise, Long Yongtu, who negotiated China’s transition to the World Trade Organization in 2001, which led to China’s astonishing economic growth, warned in May that China was in danger of isolating itself from China. ‘a new world economic order. “China is also an important player in globalization, so when someone starts talking about” de-globalization “, of course, we have to beware of that,” he said.
But with Trump seeking to rally the G7 – and in particular the European powers – against China, using the fate of Hong Kong as the cause, China may find that it is too late to roll back Europe.