China’s diplomats were already having a terrible year in Europe, but this week they managed to make it even worse. At this rate, Chinese President Xi Jinping may achieve the dubious feat of alienating the Europeans faster and further than even U.S. President Donald Trump is doing.
Xi’s overarching objective in the region is to prevent the European Union and the U.S. from ganging up against China. He was hoping for a breakthrough at a summit with EU leaders scheduled for Sep. 14. Originally slated to take place in Leipzig, it’ll be a video conference instead, owing to the pandemic. But the stakes are high. So Xi this past week dispatched his foreign minister, Wang Yi, to five European countries for some preparatory sweet talk. Talk there was; it just wasn’t sweet.
Wang showed up hoping to hear the softer tones to which he’s accustomed from Europeans, who remain more eager than the Americans to keep trading and doing business with China. Instead, he was surprised at the amount of resistance he was picking up underneath the formal niceties.
But those dissonances were as nothing compared with his stopover in Berlin. Speaking to German reporters, Wang lashed out at the president of the Czech Senate, Milos Vystrcil, who had taken a delegation to visit Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory. Vystrcil would “pay a heavy price,” threatened Wang, fuming that the Czech’s “betrayal” made him “an enemy of 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
This elicited a prompt response from Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister. Standing next to Wang at their joint press conference, Maas reminded his visitor that “we as Europeans act in close cooperation” and demand respect, and that “threats don’t fit in here.” The EU wouldn’t become a “plaything” in the Sino-American rivalry, he added. Colleagues from France, Slovakia and other European countries quickly backed him up.
In the ritualized world of diplomatic jargon, this moment signaled not only a new European tone but also a new direction. For years, many European countries, and above all Germany, did their best for commercial reasons to look the other way as China violated human rights, took advantage of Europe’s open markets and bullied some of its Asian neighbors. Those times appear to be over.
The list of grievances against China has simply become too long. It starts with the crackdown on Hong Kong and the suppression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang — China insists that both topics, like the Taiwanese question, are internal matters and none of the world’s business. Then there’s China’s saber-rattling in the South China Sea, and of course its rapacious approach to business.
To ameliorate the latter, the summit on Sept. 14 was originally meant to formalize a better relationship for mutual investment between the EU and China. But after years of negotiations, the Europeans are fed up with China’s intransigence over the many ways its state-owned or state-guided firms buy into the EU’s single market to distort competition or snaffle up technologies. Rather than facilitate Chinese investment in Europe, the EU is starting to restrict it.
That said, there are still limits on how far Europe, relative to the U.S., will go in opposing China. Noah Barkin, an American China watcher based in Berlin and currently at the German Marshall Fund, thinks that whereas the U.S. aims to “decouple” its economy from China’s, the EU merely wants to “diversify.”
That explains why some European countries, notably Germany, are still sitting on the fence about whether or not to ban Huawei Technologies Co., a Chinese telecoms giant, from supplying the kit for the forthcoming 5G networks. It also explains why France, with support from Germany and others, is trying harder to keep the whole Indo-Pacific region — basically, all the bits around China — free and prosperous.
More than the U.S., the Europeans realize that it’s not enough to check Chinese might wherever possible because they must also seek Chinese cooperation wherever necessary to solve global problems, from climate change to the next pandemic. Above all, the Europeans are hoping that the rivalry between China and the U.S., like that between Imperial Germany and Britain before 1914, doesn’t slide into a hot war in which the EU would be forced to choose sides.
For Europe, the goal is to retain a modicum of autonomy in a world increasingly dominated by two unreliable superpowers. If Joe Biden becomes the next U.S. president, the EU will try to partner with its traditional ally in bringing that about. If Donald Trump stays in office, Europe will accelerate its — admittedly modest — efforts to become equidistant. Either way, China’s diplomats are well advised to change their bearing in future visits.
By Andreas Kluth