Amid worsening ties with many countries including the United States, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is visiting Europe. Wang is covering five important countries - Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, France and Germany. The exclusion of the United Kingdom from his itinerary reflects rising tensions with Britain over Hong Kong security law.
The choice of Europe for his first visit abroad since coronavirus hit Wuhan shows the growing importance of Europe in Chinese geopolitical calculations. The head of the Communist Party’s foreign affairs committee and politburo member Yang Jiechi is also visiting Greece and Spain this week.
The European Union (EU) and China are both economic heavy weights. They play an important role in global governance institutions. Though economically deeply engaged with each other, European political positions are hardening. This is due to Beijing’s handling of coronavirus, its assertive foreign policy behaviour and the Hong Kong national security law. The US moves to build a transatlantic alliance against China are also shaping European responses.
The recent EU-China summit was also not very successful. Europeans are becoming cautious about deploying a 5G network built by Huawei. The EU supports Hong Kong autonomy under the ‘One Country Two Systems’ principle. It has also restricted sensitive technologies for end use in Hong Kong. China is also under an EU arms embargo since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
The EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell says that Europe has been ‘naïve’ about China but its approach is now becoming more realistic. However, European business interests in China are so huge that it is not easy for the EU to decouple its ties easily. Although the EU has declared China a ‘systemic rival’, Beijing believes that it has no fundamental conflicting interests with EU.
In a rapidly changing global geopolitical landscape, Beijing is trying to convince the Europeans not to be part of US designs to counterbalance China. Wang’s first stop in Italy was strategic. In recent years, China’s ties with Rome have become closer. It was the first major western country to join China’s Belt and Road (BRI) initiative. So far, Italy has not imposed any restrictions on Huawei.
The Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said that he has discussed with Wang how to “relaunch (their) strategic partnership from the economic and industrial view point”. At the same time, he asserted that the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong citizens will have to be respected. Without directly mentioning the United States, Wang emphasised that China did not want to see a Cold War and asserted that “we will not let other countries do this for their own private interests, while damaging the interests of other countries.”
China is looking for a free trade agreement with Norway. This non-EU country is rich in energy resources, a member of the Arctic Council and a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. In Oslo, Wang doubted the Chinese origin of COVID-19. He said while China was the first country to report it to the WHO, “it does not mean that the virus originated in China”. He also warned Norway against granting the Nobel Peace Prize to Hong Kong democracy activists. Between 2010 and 2016, diplomatic relations between the two were frozen when Nobel Peace prize was awarded to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
In France, Wang emphasised that China appreciates President Macron's call for Europe to strengthen strategic independence. He met Macron and said that “China and Europe have always been partners instead of rivals with their consensus far outweighing differences”. Reports indicate that during the meeting Macron expressed strong concerns about Hong Kong and the human rights situation in Xinjiang. In the Netherlands, Wang refused to meet a parliamentary foreign affairs committee which wanted to discuss human rights issues. France may not ban Huawei but indicated that it would prefer European solutions.
The most important part of the visit will be Germany. As China’s top economic partner within the EU, Angela Merkel is keen to finalise an EU-China investment treaty under German presidency of the Council of the EU. There are still unresolved issues concerning state-owned firms, subsidies and sustainable development. Merkel is also scheduled to hold a virtual summit with President Xi Jinping and other EU officials in September. The EU economy has seen a historic decline. A stabilising Chinese economy may provide opportunities to kick start some economic activities.
Europe’s position towards Beijing is hardening. To further its trade, technology and geopolitical interests, China may use its economic engagements including investment agreements to neutralise European concerns. The major challenge for Europe is to balance its values and norms with economic interests.Gulshan Sachdeva is Chairperson, Centre for European Studies and Coordinator, Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views are personal.