Europe turns on China

Once skeptical of America’s increasingly hostile stance on China, the EU and its member states are taking a series of new measures that bring their policies closer to those of the United States.

Why it matters: Beijing’s push for Europe to accept “strategic autonomy” from the United States – hoping the EU would do so maintaining warmer ties with China – now looks like a moot point.

What’s happening: Last week, after intense pressure from lawmakers and human rights activists concerned about forced labor in Xinjiang, the European Commission unveiled a proposed ban on products made using forced labor.

  • European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also criticized Chinese funding for European research institutions and announced a new “Defence of Democracy” package that aims to scrutinize foreign funding of European academic institutions to “disguise covert foreign influence and to bring questionable funding to light”.
  • The US earlier this year imposed an import ban on all products made in Xinjiang, and the Trump administration has taken a closer look at foreign funding to US universities.
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Zoom in: Germany is an important benchmark. Berlin was once a staunch supporter of close trade ties with China and thus tended to avoid tensions with Beijing. But Berlin now seems to have managed a major turnaround on issues ranging from trade to human rights to direct military engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

  • Last week, Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck promised “no more naivety” in German trade with China. Habeck announced his team is working on new economic policies to reduce dependence on China in key industries and scrutinize incoming investments from China, saying “we cannot be blackmailed.”
  • Also the Foreign Office announced it would appoint a special envoy to the Pacific States, where China’s growing influence has alarmed Australia and the United States.
  • At the end of August, Germany joined the Pitch Black exercise as a full participant for the first time. The set of Military exercises are held every two years off Australia’s north coast with air forces from no fewer than 17 countries including the US, UK, France, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. The exercise’s recent expansion has raised questions about its possible role as a counterweight to China in the region.
  • The tabloid Global Times, which is close to the Chinese Communist Party, reported that some German media had warned the country against joining an “anti-China alliance” in the Indo-Pacific.
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Flashback: European nations have been largely skeptical of the Trump administration’s harsh rhetoric against China.

  • In December 2020, the European Union approved an investment deal with China that ignored concerns about forced labor in China’s economy and would have strengthened economic ties between the bloc and China. In contrast, the Trump administration took more than 200 public measures that same year to antagonize Beijing and decouple certain sectors of the US and Chinese economies.

  • However, a major turning point in EU-China relations occurred in March 2021. The EU imposed sanctions on some Chinese officials for abuses in Xinjiang. Beijing retaliated by sanctioning MEPs and others, and in May 2021 the European Parliament voted to freeze the investment treaty.
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Relations between Europe and China has since collapsed.

  • China’s “rock-solid” support for Russia during its invasion of Ukraine has weighed on many Europeans’ attitudes toward Beijing.
  • Beijing’s ongoing crackdown on Hong Kong has also stunned many in Europe.
  • A United Nations report published at the end of August warning of “serious human rights violations” and possible “crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang triggered sharp criticism from European heads of state and government.

Yes but: Trade relations between Europe and China remain strong and the EU has stressed that cooperation with China on climate change is crucial.

Something to see: Taipei is urging the EU to pass sanctions that would stop China from invading Taiwan, Reuters reports.

  • Meanwhile, China is forging economic and security ties on Europe’s periphery. Xi and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko have just announced an enhanced partnership, and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has deepened ties with China.

go deeper: France masters tricky challenges in China

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