As European criticism of China mounts over human rights, will there be an increasing political price to pay for economic engagement?

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi ended a week-long European tour yesterday with mixed results, leaving Wang with more questions than answers.

Yi’s five-nation trip began during the last week of August, making stops in Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, France, and Germany. Top of the agenda were efforts to resume investment and trade negotiations, and push for cooperation in areas of environmental protection, information and communications technology, and big data.

Beyond finding common ground on economic issues, Wang pursued another goal in his messaging: to warn of the ramifications of decoupling or unilateralism. In other words, to press European partners to avoid going down the hawkish path of the US and drawing itself into a ‘new cold war’.

Yet at each step of the way, concern was frequently raised over Chinese actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Italian foreign minister Luigi di Maio expressed Italy’s intentions to re-launch bilateral economic partnership but added that Hong Kong’s autonomy must be respected, while German foreign minister Heiko Maas pushed China over its treatment of Uyghurs, saying that they would “welcome it if China granted UN observers access to the camps,” and condemned Chinese threats made against a Czech politician who led a delegation to Taiwan.

Nathan Law, the anti-China activist who fled to the UK after the national security legislation passed in Hong Kong, led a protest of several hundred outside the German foreign ministry calling for action against China.

It remains to be seen if EU-China relations have reached a point where there is an increasing political price to pay for economic cooperation.

With the world economy mired in a downturn, concerns are growing over unfair competition from outside Europe, as politicians in Brussels warn about the need to shield European industries and introduce tougher mechanisms to vet Chinese acquisition attempts.

The EU’s patience is wearing thin on the question of equal access to China’s market and an end to state subsidies. No sanctions were spelled out though, and Chinese telecom giant Huawei remains in contention in Germany’s 5G network.

Any reassessment is likely to have security implications as well. Germany is following France and will reveal an Indo-Pacific strategy that will reinforce Berlin’s defence ties with India, Japan and Australia.

Growing cracks

Wang’s trip came amid deepening skepticism in Europe about the region’s embrace of China.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a significant factor in souring EU-China relations to its lowest levels since the two formally established diplomatic ties 45 years ago.

Apart from revealing an overdependence on Chinese supply chains, the Chinese government is widely considered the most responsible for the severity of the pandemic among European public opinion. 

According to a recent poll, 60 percent of people in the UK and France, and 47 percent of Germans see the Chinese government as a bad actor.

That is to say European attitudes toward China are unquestionably hardening across the continent

Coverage has increasingly focused on Beijing’s recent diplomatic mishaps, from its “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” to its “mask diplomacy” since the Covid-19 outbreak, as well as European disapproval of the national security law in Hong Kong.

The annual EU-China summit, which took place through video conferences on June 22, highlighted irreconcilable differences over issues like Hong Kong, cybersecurity and human rights. Nothing conclusive on the economic front was agreed upon.

Cooperation on critical topics like climate change, global governance and sustainable development has been limited to rhetoric rather than concrete action on the Chinese side.

The gulf between the two was evident following statements that were released following the summit.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said “the relationship between the EU and China is simultaneously one of the most strategically important and one of the most challenging that we have” adding that the relationship with China was “not an easy one.”

Chinese president Xi Jinping insisted that “no matter how the international situation changes, China will take the side of multilateralism and adhere to the global governance concept of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits”.

Over the past three years, the EU has embarked on an approach that balances both engagement and caution. It has pushed for better coordination and defense on economic issues such as FDIs, state-aid and technology transfers.

The European Commission has issued 5G technology guidelines and a white paper on foreign subsidies. It has also launched a connectivity strategy which hopes to offer a European alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative.

Last year was considered to be a turning point in the EU’s bilateral relations with China, after the publication in March of a EU-China Strategic Outlook which labeled China a “systemic rival.”

While the stern discourse from Europe is a far-cry from the Trump administration’s accompaniment of trade sanctions and business restrictions, there is a greater appetite to reassert their approach to China’s rise.

Despite the value of China’s economic partnership to European states, it is becoming more evident that human rights issues are no longer off the table in high-profile settings.

That means a single diplomatic charm offensive is unlikely to do much to arrest the decline in China’s relationship with Europe.

For the time being, “EU-China relations will continue to be awkward”.

Source: TRT World