European countries struggle to align on China

European countries struggle to align on China

Underneath the great clock of Big Ben in the British House of Commons last week, I questioned a few members of parliament (MPs) how they felt the UK should frame its relationship with China.

All the politicians I spoke to urged caution, and noted areas on which the U.K. could not find common ground with China, such as the idea that Taiwan should be united with the mainland.

Politicians of different parties used different phraseology.

The MP for Bath, Wera Hobhouse — a Liberal Democrat — told me she thinks “a massive global fight” is looming between countries which are free and those which are not.

“Democracies and autocracies are fundamentally different. Russia has been a wake up call,” she warned.

Hobhouse represents a small opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, and thus has the freedom to be outspoken.

Tim Loughton, an MP from the ruling Conservative Party chose his words carefully, telling me “we want constructive engagement with China which does not prevent us from challenging the Chinese on key issues.” In his view, the goal is de-risking, rather decoupling, which he said would be impossible to achieve.

Loughton is an influential voice within the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, an international cross-party group of legislators known for its hawkish approach to China, although Loughton describes it as “realist.”

Ultimately though, it is the British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly who speaks for the government on international issues and he made a long and detailed speech on China April 25. He said that an era of open confrontation with Beijing might harm the U.K.’s economic interests and limit the West’s ability to engage on shared challenges, including climate change and nuclear proliferation.

“It would be clear and easy — perhaps even satisfying — for me to declare a new Cold War and say that our goal is to isolate China,” Cleverly said. “Clear, easy, satisfying — and wrong. Because it would be a betrayal of our national interest and a wilful misunderstanding of the modern world.”

Britain and China after Brexit

In the speech and in press interviews, the Foreign Secretary stressed Britain’s bilateral relationship with China. This is significant because the British government is attempting to follow its own foreign policy approach towards China, decided in Westminster, following the U.K.’s exit from the European Union.

Britain may be trying to go its own way, but similar debates are also taking place in parliaments across the EU. In a speech at the European Parliament on April 18, the EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell expressed his hope for a united EU approach to China — noting that this is no easy task. At present, he said, there is a cacophony of voices on China, with not everyone saying the same thing or in the same way.

“We cannot speak with one voice as there are multiple voices within the EU, but at least we need to be on the same wavelength,” he said. “Due to its massive influence in the world, we cannot stop talking to it because it is not a democracy,” Mr Borrell stressed. “China is not Russia; it is a superpower that is growing, especially in the Global South. When it comes to China, there are four areas of particular interest: EU values, economic security, Taiwan and Ukraine,” he concluded.

European leaders and foreign ministers are regularly visiting China.

The poor relationship between China and America provides motivation for Beijing to engage more with Europe. The red carpet has been rolled out in the Chinese capital for many guests, including the German Chancellor, Olaf Sholz — who went to China in December 2022 — and the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who visited in March 2023.

The most extravagant welcome was reserved for the French President, Emmanuel Macron, who spent two days in China on a state visit in April 2023. Not only did he receive a lavish banquet in his honor in Beijing, he was even invited to travel with Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 to a luxury government compound in Guangzhou in southern China, where the two leaders enjoyed tea and a lengthy tête-à-tête in the Pine Garden.

While he was flying home to France aboard COTAM Unité — France’s Air Force One — Macron made controversial comments about Taiwan which hit the headlines. In an interview conducted jointly by journalists from Politico and Les Echos, Macron said it was not the continent’s business “getting caught up in crises that are not ours”. He said Europe should not be “followers” of America.

A few days later at a press conference in Amsterdam with the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, Macron told journalists that “being an ally does not mean being a vassal, or mean that we don’t have the right to think for ourselves.”

This led to a barrage of criticism in the media. The Economist said in an op-ed: “Mr Macron’s comments were worse than unhelpful: they were diplomatically dangerous and conceptually wrong.”

The Japan Forward website said in an editorial: “Macron’s remarks hamper the efforts of the international community and the Taiwanese people to pursue peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. They also hinder efforts to protect Taiwan’s freedom and democracy.”

Politicians gave their reactions to Macron’s remarks.

The German Defence Minister, Boris Pistorius, described them as “unfortunate” and added “we have never been in danger of becoming or being a vassal of the US.” And in an interview with the Guardian, the British Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, said that he fundamentally disagreed that Taiwan is a domestic matter for China, or that the U.K. could be regarded as a vassal state to another nation. But he also said that Britain should not “pull the shutters down” on China.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Mike Gallagher, the Republican chairman of the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, called Macron’s comments “embarrassing and disgraceful.” Donald Trump went on Fox News on April 19 to accuse Macron of going to China to “kiss ass.” In a rambling hour-long interview with Tucker Carlson, Trump also praised Xi Jinping.

“President Xi is a brilliant man: if you went all over Hollywood to look for somebody to play the role of President Xi, you couldn’t find him,” Trump said. “There’s nobody like that: The look, the brains, the whole thing,” he added, describing Xi as someone who is “top of the line smart.”

China likes “strategic autonomy”

There is a piece of jargon within the lexicon of European politics which is often mentioned by Emmanual Macron: “strategic autonomy”.

This phrase refers to the capacity of the EU to act autonomously — that is, without being dependent on other countries, such as the United States — in strategically important areas, including foreign policy.

It is a concept which goes down well with supporters of the Chinese Communist Party. For example, Hè Zhīgǎo 贺之杲, a research fellow with the Institute of European Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote an opinion piece in Global Times in which he claimed that the need for European strategic autonomy is intensifying.

In his view, “the U.S. is trying to turn the international community into a hierarchical society centered on itself and maintain an international system in which U.S. hegemony reigns supreme.” By contrast, he said “Europe’s global blueprint is an international system based on regional cooperation.”

Analysts note the alignment between the rhetoric on the Chinese and European sides.

“Strategic autonomy is a concept which is dear to President Macron but it’s also very dear to Xi Jinping,” Hanns Maull, Senior Research Fellow, Mercator Institute for Chinese Studies, Berlin told the China Project.

“The Chinese idea of strategic autonomy for Europe is that the Europeans keep their distance from the United States. That is why China is supportive of European strategic autonomy. The Chinese want the Europeans to keep out of the tensions over Taiwan and so strategic autonomy for China is a way to split the West and divide the European Union from America,” said Maull.

A different tone from the European Commission’s president

The European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen was also welcomed to China in April, albeit in a less fulsome way than the French leader. She joined a discussion with Xi and Macron which lasted for about an hour.

Before her departure to China, von der Leyen delivered a striking speech in Brussels, in which she criticized President Xi for maintaining a friendship with Vladimir Putin. She said that “far from being put off by the atrocious and illegal invasion of Ukraine, President Xi is maintaining his no-limits friendship with Putin.”

She noted Xi’s parting words to Putin on the steps of the Kremlin in March, when Xi said: “Right now, there are changes, the likes of which we have not seen for 100 years. And we are the ones driving these changes together.”

Von der Leyen claimed China’s international standing has been diminished and warned that the manner in which China deals with Russia in the wake of the Ukraine invasion will be a “determining factor” in EU-China relations for years to come.

The Americans want the Europeans to remain “on message”

Von der Leyen’s speech was written soon after she met U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House in March. Biden’s goal is to present a consistent position on China together with Japan and Europe. However, the range of attitudes within Europe presents a challenge when it comes to reaching a consensus.

The U.S. State Department regularly shares its views on China with senior politicians from France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. which —- along with Canada and Japan — are all members of the G7 group of rich, industrialised nations.

At a gathering of G7 Foreign Ministers in Japan’s Nagano prefecture on April 18th, the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that there had been “clear unanimity” over the Taiwan issue. The final communique stated that “there is no change in the basic positions of the G7 members on Taiwan, including stated one China policies.”

The Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said: “The strength of solidarity among the G7 foreign ministers is at a level not seen before.”

This came as a surprise to some observers, given the outcry over Marcon’s comments on Taiwan.

Credit for patching up the diplomatic bruises should be shared by two women: the French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna and her German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock. Together they managed to find suitable wording for the phrase in the final communique and their efforts were appreciated by the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as by the White House.

Over the long term, even the most meticulous diplomats will be pushed to convince China that European nations speak with one autonomous voice on foreign policy.

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