January 2024


Talking tough

In the wake of the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, the European Union is seeking to reset its relationship with China – though with mixed results Amit Agnihotri, reports

Two recent mega summits involving the US, European Union and China have shown that the Western powers have chosen the path of consultation to manage their differences with the Asian Dragon and prevent a descent into conflict, amid growing concerns over the fallout of the wars in Eurasia and West Asia and the emerging China-Russia axis.

The Ukraine war, a result of Russian aggression, defied international peace norms and has continued unabated since February 2022.

If thiswar has tested the United Nations’ relevance in contemporary geopolitics, the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza has further eroded the credibility of the UN-based international system.

The worst-ever Gaza conflict has consumed the lives of over 20,000 Palestinians and has left around 50,000 injured. The war is casting a shadow over the volatile West Asian region, where the US has been trying hard to retain its influence and prevent China from making further inroads.

Over the past months, increasing tensions between the US and China over trade related issues – particularly the availability of semiconductors vital for a modern economy, Beijing’s expansionism in the Indo-Pacific and South China Sea, tensions in the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan Strait, coupled with the emerging China-Russia nexus which threatens Washington’s global supremacy – forced American strategists to arrange a November summit between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The main aim of the summit was to provide a semblance of normalcy in the bilateral relations and allow the world’s most powerful democracy to be on talking terms with the dictatorial East Asian regime in an uncertain global order.

While the Biden-Xi summit, held on the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Francisco, provided no peace roadmap, the saving grace were pacts related to Artificial Intelligence and resumption of military-to-military dialogue.

In contrast, the first in-person EU-China conclave since 2019 held in Beijing in December ended up in a whimper, with the two sides sharing mutual concerns but failing to resolve their differences.

Presidents Xi and Biden at 15 November 2023 summit
US President Joe Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 15 Nov. summit on the sidelines of APEC

The EU-China leaders have been interacting with each other in Brussels and Beijing since 1998 to sort out issues of mutual concern.However, the 2023 EU-China summit took place amidst heightened tensions between the two sides and was therefore watched across the world with interest.

The Beijing talks were led by European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, along with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang.

The EU leaders told Xi they were displeased about China’s support for Russia since the start of the Ukraine war, which directly threatens the security architecture provided by NATO. They also informed the Chinese President that they were upset over the mega trade imbalance with China, worth 400 billion euros, and Beijing’s restrictive trade policies and limited market access to foreign companies.

In addition, EU concerns were raised that Beijing had been allegedly helping sanctions-hit Russia through re-exports.The sanctions had been imposed by the US and the EU to penalize Russia for invading Ukraine and throwing the world order into turmoil by disrupting global supply chains.

The EU leaders told Xi they were displeased about China’s support for Russia

During the war, Chinese re-exports of European-made items provided a much-needed cushion to Moscow, which was reeling under the impact of the harsh economic sanctions.China also bailed out Moscow by buying discounted oil from Russia which had been forced to distress sale as a result of Western economic sanctions.

These fresh assertions from the EU leaders were in fact a reiteration of the concerns that EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrel and trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis had shared with Chinese officials earlier in 2023 – that responding to Russian aggression was the top priority for the EU and that China’s stance had been damaging to the bilateral relations.

During the December summit, the EU leaders tried to persuade China to push Russia towards ending the Ukraine war.But they did not succeed.

‘Russia’s war of aggression is a blatant violation of international law and the UN Charter and a serious threat to European security. This is why we recalled the need for China to use all its influence on Russia to stop this war of aggression and to engage in Ukraine’s peace formula. We reiterated that (China) should refrain from supplying lethal equipment to Russia and prevent any attempts by Russia to undermine the impact of sanctions,’ European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters after the meeting.

Another message from EU leaders to China was clear: the bloc wanted to have relations with Beijing but structural trade issues needed to be resolved.

Taiwanhas echoed US views on the need to keep the Indo-Pacific free and rules-based to counter Beijing’s expansionism

Indeed, signalling a disquiet within the EU over trade relations with China, member nation Italy recently withdrew from the Belt and Road Initiative, a pet project of President Xi since 2013.

Like the US, the EU leaders expressed their concerns over geopolitically contentious issues and warned the Asian Dragon of ‘consequences’.

‘We are concerned about the growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea. We are opposed to any unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force or coercion, and the EU maintains its “OneChina” policy. I trust that China is fully aware of the serious consequences of any escalation in this region,’ European Council President Charles Michel told reporters after the meeting.

The threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan as part of Xi’s One China policy has loomed large since Russia’s aggression in Ukraine shocked the West.To express solidarity with the tiny island nation, various delegations of the US and EU have visited Taiwan over the past years.

To counter China’s ongoing military expansion and provocation, the latest US outreach to Taiwan came in the form of an arms deal worth $300 million, the 12th such sale by the Biden administration since 2021.

Chinese President Xi Jinping welcoming Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen at the Dec. 7 summit in Beijing
Chinese President Xi Jinping welcoming Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen at the Dec. 7 summit in Beijing

Taiwan, too, has been echoing the views expressed by the US-led Quad on the need to keep the Indo-Pacific free and rules-based to counter Beijing’s expansionism in the strategic region, which hosts globally important shipping lanes.

The issue of human rights violations in China’s Xinjiang and Tibet areas and civil liberties in Hong Kong were also flagged up by the EU leaders, who welcomed the resumption of a high-level dialogue to address the concerns.

For its part, China told the EU leaders that it wanted no restrictive trade policies as Beijing recently pushed back against an EU anti-subsidy probe into Chinese electric vehicles.

Beijing further urged the EU not to engage in confrontation due to different political systems and noted that China wanted no interference in the bilateral relations.

Moreover, China told the EU that it was ready to make the 27-member body a trading partner but noted that it wanted mutual trust.

Ahead of the summit, China tried to show a friendly face by resorting to some diplomatic tokenism. Beijing had been following coercive trade practices against Lithuania since the EU member allowed Taiwan to open a de facto embassy in its capital Vilnius in 2021.

But Beijing curtailed some of those practices ahead of the summit and allowed temporary visa-free travels to the citizens of five EU members: France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy and Spain.

Having chosen the path of consultation to avoid confrontation, the EU signalled its openness to cultural exchanges with China but made it clear that the bloc will keep the pressure on over strategic and trade-related issues.

Amit Agnihotri is a Delhi-based journalist who has worked with several national newspapers and focuses on politics and policy issues

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