On September 16th the European Union (EU) parliament published an 18-page resolution on a new EU-China strategy. Quite aptly, the resolution was released soon after the United States announced the creation of a new alliance with the United Kingdom and Australia (AUKUS), which created some headaches in Brussels and other European capitals, most notably Paris.
The EU must have taken time to use the right language and prepare a resolution that seeks to support the US in its anti-China stance, while at the same time drawing upon its own experience and requirements to work with China.
Given the lengthy and comprehensive tirade against China in print, the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s comment that “we must survive on our own, as others do,” reflects the new global reality, whereby the EU needs to formulate a grand strategy for the Indo-Pacific region, should it not want to be entirely side-lined in the global arena. More importantly, the formation of AUKUS signals the “need for a common EU approach in a region of strategic interest”, to use Borrell’s words. With Germany already having announced its strategy for the Indo-Pacific, the EU’s declaration of intent for the region may not have come as a surprise to anyone.
The fundamental message of the resolution is that “China is asserting a stronger global role both as an economic power and as a foreign-policy actor, which poses serious political, economic, security and technological challenges to the EU. In turn, this has significant and long-lasting consequences for the world order and poses serious threats to rules-based multilateralism and core democratic values.” True to its core values, the EU also highlights every aspect of the complicated relationship with China, including Bejing’s gross violation of human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet. In this regard, particular attention has been paid to the Chinese government’s ‘Strike hard against violent terrorism’ campaign launched in 2014, which has led to a rapid deterioration in the condition of the situation of Uyghur in Xinjiang.
Perhaps the most recent illustration of the totalitarian nature of the Chinese state, which also finds mention in the EU document, is the departure of some foreign correspondents from the mainland. Furthermore, the ridiculous labelling by the Chinese government of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, the professional association of Beijing-based journalists reporting on China globally, as an ‘illegal organisation’ is the latest in a long and increasing instances of harassment and obstruction of foreign journalists. This is part of the effort to police speech about China globally and, as the EU rightly concludes, to determine what kind of speech and discussions are allowed as part of a totalitarian threat.
The document also expresses regret over China’s one-party system and its commitment to Marxism-Leninism, which precludes the possibility to embrace “democratic values such as individual freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of religion”. The core recommendation provided is on the importance of developing “a more assertive, comprehensive and consistent EU-China strategy that unites all Member States and shapes relations with China in the interest of the EU as a whole”.
Building on previous resolutions, the latest report makes a number of recommendations, including calls to adopt targeted sanctions against senior Chinese officials responsible for abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. It calls for better coordination to counter Beijing’s growing global influence and anti-rights agenda and for a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. The European Parliament also urges the EU’s foreign policy branch to seek a more effective and benchmark-based human rights dialogue.
It is worth mentioning that the EU perceives the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a “threat stemming from China,” among other initiatives like the “dual circulation strategy, Made in China 2025, China Standards 2035” and other policies, including its military modernization and capacity build-up. The EU’s role in the Indo-Pacific is relatively weak, and only countries such as the US, the UK and France could make an impact. For this reason, the EU welcomed the G7 leaders’ agreement to develop a partnership called Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative as an alternative to China’s BRI. Needless to say, the challenge for the EU and other nations remains to embrace the initiative and make it a success.
While the EU Report goes hammer and tongs on China on virtually every geo-political aspect, its primary concern remains the increasingly unbalanced bilateral economic and trade relationship between the EU and China. That is why the EU has sought to build a level playing field and forge a fruitful relationship with China despite the differences between their respective economic systems. Ultimately, the EU action against China will require all 27 EU member states to come together, which is often superseded by “bilateral and uncoordinated engagement of some member states with China,” including bilateral deals, thus undermining EU unity. For example, in May last year Hungary vetoed the adoption of foreign ministers’ conclusions on Hong Kong. In sum, the report urges the EU to coordinate member states’ bilateral policies with China, and even urges a review of European-Commission policies that risk making it harder to ensure a coherent and consistent policy across all the EU branches. The EU needs a more robust China strategy, so the current EU parliament resolution only provides the framework of the new strategy, but it needs to be translated into policy actions by the EU itself.