Why the EU is going cold on China

The five-country visit of China’s chief diplomat have underlined how relations with the EU have deteriorated in just a few months

It was, as the politburo might put it, a charm offensive with Chinese characteristics. The five-country trip to Europe by China's foreign minister Wang Yi – his first foreign travel since February – was ostensibly a routine tour to strengthen relations between Beijing and key European capitals, but coming at a time of such acute tension between China and the United States, it was very clearly designed to pre-empt any signs of a joint EU-US front against Beijing. On each stop, Wang warned pointedly of the dangers of a "new Cold War" between east and west.

But while mending fraying relationships was the objective, the travels of China’s chief diplomat merely underlined how EU-China relations have deteriorated in just a few months.

In Berlin, Wang threatened Czech senate speaker Milos Vystrcil for his recent visit to Taiwan, saying Vystrcil would "pay a heavy price for his shortsighted behaviour". That earned Wang a rebuke from Heiko Mass, Germany's foreign minister, who, at a joint press conference, said that "in the European Union we deal with our international partners together and with respect, and threats do not fit into that approach". Germany is China's biggest trading partner and, under Angela Merkel, has been slow to criticise it in public. The same is true of Italy, which under its previous government developed a close relationship with Beijing and is the only EU state to sign up to China's Belt and Road Initiative of international economic development.

In Rome last week, however, Wang was publicly chastised by his Italian counterpart Luigi di Maio over Beijing's crackdown in Hong Kong. In Paris, President Emmanuel Macron took the opportunity to upbraid his Chinese visitor over the situation in Hong Kong and human rights abuses perpetrated against the Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang. No sooner had Wang left France than Macron gave a speech in which he said he would prefer to see European telecoms firms build 5G mobile networks than China's Huawei. The absent cities on Wang's itinerary told their own story. There was no visit to London, which has issued a de facto (albeit future) ban on the use of Huawei and has put up a strong defence of democracy activists in Hong Kong. Nor did the delegation visit Brussels, where the European Commission has begun openly to refer to the EU's "rivalry" with China.


At least some of the cooling in relations between Europe and China is linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many EU capitals believe Beijing was too slow to share information about the deadly new coronavirus that emerged in China late last year. When the virus reached Europe and China made widely-publicised deliveries of medical equipment, the EU resented what it saw as Beijing's attempt to politicise emergency aid (the EU had earlier offered extensive support to China in its fight to contain Covid-19 but without insisting that the world know all about it, EU officials complained). At the same time, public opinion was turning. Drawing on polling across nine EU states, the European Council on Foreign Relations in July reported that people's attitudes towards China had cooled markedly since the pandemic struck. In France, 62 per cent said their opinion worsened this year, and just 6 per cent said it improved. In Germany, 48 per cent said they held a lower view of China this year than they did last year.

More assertive EU

The EU has tried to avoid taking sides in the dispute between China and the Trump administration. It is as unlikely to join in Trump's belligerent posturing as it is to submit to the authoritarian regime in Beijing. China's fears that Trump could drive a wedge between it and Europe are probably overdone. But the EU has itself been growing "more realistic and assertive" in its approach to China in recent years, as foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote in this newspaper in May. Talks on a new investment treaty have stalled over what the Europeans see as unfair obstacles facing their companies in China. A litany of European grievances over a lack of reciprocity in trade and economic relations have come to a head at a time when Chinese human rights abuses, in Xinjiang in particular, have dominated the headlines. In July the EU imposed sanctions on China over its treatment of Hong Kong, and in May the bloc's diplomatic arm accused China of running a "global disinformation campaign" to deflect blame for the Covid-19 pandemic and improve its international image.

When EU and Chinese leaders met for a virtual summit in May, they couldn’t even agree a joint communiqué. A major summit between Xi Jinping, Merkel and other EU leaders, due to take place later this month, has been downgraded.

For decades, the EU thought of China chiefly as an economic actor, a trading partner,but a clean separation between political, economic and strategic interests is no longer tenable. So the bloc needs a strategic framework that joins them together.

It's hardly a secret that both the EU and China hope that in November's US election Trump will be unseated by Joe Biden, who served as vice-president in an administration whose general attitude towards China was not dissimilar to the EU's today. But for the EU, hoping for a return to the status quo ante in Washington this winter does not amount to a China policy.