Europe turns against China

Once skeptical of America’s increasingly hostile attitude towards China, the EU and its member states are adopting a cascade of new measures that will bring their policies closer to those of the United States.

Why it matters: Beijing’s push for Europe to take “strategic autonomy” from the United States – hoping the EU would maintaining warm ties with China – now seems a moot point.

What is going on: Last week, the European Commission unveiled a proposal to ban forced labor products, following intense pressure from lawmakers and human rights activists concerned about forced labor in Xinjiang.

  • European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also criticized China’s funding of European research institutions and announced a new “Defense of Democracy” package designed to scrutinize foreign funding from European academic institutions to “disguise foreign influence and shady financing.”
  • The US introduced an import ban on all products made in Xinjiang earlier this year, and the Trump administration has tightened controls on foreign funding at US universities.

Zoom in: Germany is an important benchmark. Berlin was once a staunch supporter of close trade ties with China, so it tended to avoid tensions with Beijing. But Berlin now appears to have turned an important corner on issues from trade to human rights to direct military engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

  • Last week, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck promised “no more naivety” in Germany’s trade with China. Habeck announced that his team was working on a new economic policy to reduce reliance on China in key industries and closely monitor inward investment from China, saying, “We can’t be blackmailed.”
  • Also the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it would appoint a special representative to countries in the Pacific, where China’s growing influence has alarmed Australia and the United States.
  • At the end of August, Germany joined Exercise Pitch Black as a full participant For the first time. the set of military exercises are held every two years off the north coast of Australia with air forces from as many as 17 countries, including the US, UK, France, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. The exercise’s recent expansion has raised questions about its potential role as a counterpart to China in the region.
  • The Chinese Communist Party-affiliated tabloid Global Times reported that some German media warned the country against joining an “anti-Chinese alliance” in the Indo-Pacific.

Looking back: European countries were largely skeptical of the Trump administration’s sharp rhetoric against China.

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

  • But a major turning point in the EU-China relationship came in March 2021. The EU imposed sanctions on some Chinese officials for abuse in Xinjiang. Beijing retaliated by imposing sanctions on EU parliamentarians and others, and in May 2021 the European Parliament voted to freeze the investment deal.

The relationship between Europe and China has since plummeted.

  • China’s “steadfast” support for Russia during its invasion of Ukraine soured the attitude of many Europeans towards Beijing.
  • Beijing’s continued crackdown on Hong Kong has also baffled many in Europe.
  • A United Nations report published in late August warning of “serious human rights violations” and possible “crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang sparked harsh criticism from European leaders.

Yes but: Trade relations between Europe and China are still strong, and the EU has emphasized that cooperation on climate change with China is crucial.

What to watch: Taipei is urging the EU to adopt sanctions that would stop China from invading Taiwan, Reuters reports.

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

Go deeper: France navigates tough challenges in China

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