After a meeting with senior EU officials in Sweden this week, US secretary of state Antony Blinken said there was “convergence” between Washington and Brussels over China. European commissioners Margarethe Vestager and Valdis Dombrovskis were too polite to disagree during the EU-US press conference but their silence about China spoke volumes.
The joint statement that followed the meeting of the EU-US trade and technology council on Wednesday included only two explicit references to China. One expressed concern about China’s restriction of access to its medical devices market and the other condemned Beijing’s “amplification” of Russian narratives about the war in Ukraine.
The statement’s warning about economic coercion – the economic targeting of countries, firms and individuals for political reasons – was undoubtedly directed at China. But its reluctance to name China reflects the EU’s determination to resist Washington’s efforts to use the trade and technology council as a joint platform to target Beijing.
After last month’s G7 summit in Hiroshima, Joe Biden predicted that US-China relations were about to thaw and US officials have been seeking a dialogue between the two countries’ militaries. But Beijing has ruled out a meeting between its new defence minister Li Shangfu and his US counterpart Lloyd Austin at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a security conference in Singapore that starts on Friday.
The Trump administration sanctioned Li in 2018 because of Chinese arms purchases from Russia and the Biden administration has refused to remove the sanction.
Beijing, which maintain that unilateral sanctions imposed without United Nations authorisation are illegal, says Li will not meet Austin until Washington changes its mind.
China is also unhappy about the Biden administration’s decision to sell more weapons to Taiwan and the delivery last month of Stinger missiles approved for sale in 2019. And tensions rose further this week with the near collision of a Chinese and a US fighter aircraft, for which each side is blaming the other.
In Sweden on Wednesday, US commerce secretary Gina Raimondo echoed Blinken’s assertion that there was convergence between the EU and the US on China, adding that it was “because our interests are aligned”. But while Washington views Beijing as a great power competitor and rival, Europe takes a more pragmatic view of its relationship with China.
In recent months a succession of EU leaders have delivered the same message to China: that future ties will be determined by the war in Ukraine and China’s relationship with Russia. While Beijing dislikes and even resents this linkage, it is a geopolitical fact that it will have to reckon with.