BRUSSELS (AP) — In the weeks since Chinese leader Xi Jinping won a third five-year term as president, setting him on a path to stay in power for life, leaders and diplomats from around the world have fought their way to his doorstep. None more than those of Europe.
French President Emmanuel Macron made a high-profile state visit to Beijing last week accompanied by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, a few days after the President of the Spanish Government, Pedro Sánchez.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock arrived in the country’s northeastern port city of Tianjin on Thursday, following a visit by Chancellor Olaf Scholz in November. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, was also reportedly in China this week, but tested positive for COVID-19.
For the 27-nation trading bloc, the reasons for targeting China are clear.
As an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Xi could play a critical role in helping end the war in Ukraine. The conflict has dragged on for more than a year, driving up energy prices and inflicting further damage on economies struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
The Europeans want Xi’s help. They want him to talk to the president of Ukraine and the president of Russia, but they don’t see him as the key mediator. China’s proposed peace plan for Ukraine is mainly a list of its previously known positions and is unacceptable, say EU officials.
The EU also fears that Xi could supply Russia with weapons. They have been particularly disturbed by Putin’s plans. deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. That announcement came just days after Xi and Putin met to cement their “unlimited friendship”
Baerbock said that the war is “the most important thing on my agenda.” Praising Beijing for easing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, he said that “its influence vis-à-vis Russia will have consequences for the whole of Europe and for our relationship with China.”
At the same time, the EU is deeply concerned about a military escalation in the Taiwan Strait. china launched war games right after Macron left. But unlike the US, with its military and strategic interest in Taiwan, the Europeans view the island primarily in economic and pro-democratic terms.
Therefore, the visits are meant to reassure Xi that he respects Beijing’s control over all Chinese territory and urge calm. They also highlight the challenge facing the US in its attempt to build a coalition of countries to increase pressure on Beijing for its expansionist policies.
“The key is that we have every interest, both in Europe and in China, to maintain the status quo,” a senior EU official said on Wednesday, briefing reporters on plans for Borrell’s delicate trip with the condition of not being identified. “It has worked well for all sides for decades.”
Beyond geopolitics is business. The EU and China had more than 2.3 billion euros ($2.5 billion) worth of daily trade last year, and the Europeans don’t want to jeopardize that. However, the EU’s trade deficit has more than tripled in the last decade and it wants to level the playing field for business.
It is also desperate to limit its imports of critical resources from China, such as rare earth minerals or high-tech components, after painfully parting ways with its biggest and most unreliable gas supplier, Russia.
It’s a fine line to walk, and China is an adept at divide-and-conquer politics.
Over the past two decades, the Chinese government has often used its economic weight to alienate France, Germany and other US allies on issues ranging from military security and trade to human rights and Taiwan.
Beijing has repeatedly called for a “multipolar world,” a reference to Chinese frustration with US dominance of global affairs and the ruling Communist Party’s ambition to see the country become an international leader.
“There has been a serious deviation in the US understanding and positioning on China, treating China as the main opponent and the biggest geopolitical challenge,” Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang told reporters last month. .
“China-Europe relations are not directed, dependent or subject to third parties,” he said.
Macron’s visit seemed to illustrate that Qin’s view is not just wishful thinking. As tensions between Beijing and Washington rise, the French leader said, it is important for Europe to retain its “strategic autonomy.”
“Being a friend doesn’t mean you have to be a vassal,” Macron said Wednesday, repeating a comment from his trip that alarmed some European partners. “Just because we are allies, it doesn’t mean (that) we no longer have the right to think for ourselves.”
Such comments could strain ties with the US and have also exposed divisions within the EU.
Without mentioning Macron, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned that some in Europe were too slow to heed the “wake-up call” on China.
“You could see this in recent weeks when some European leaders went to Beijing,” Morawiecki said, adding: “I don’t quite understand the idea of strategic autonomy, if it means de facto shooting ourselves in the knee.”
For its part, the White House has tried to downplay Macron’s talk of Europe as “an independent pole in a multipolar world.”
He believes that European skepticism towards Beijing is growing. US officials point to a recent Dutch decision to restrict China’s access to advanced computer chip components or Scholz publicly urged Xi not to hand over weapons to Russia.
Despite differences in national emphasis, the The EU strategy on China It remains as it was established in 2019: that the Asian giant is “a partner, a competitor and a systemic rival”. The goal of the recent visits fits that mold: to secure Xi’s commitment to peace, keep trade flowing fairly and reduce Europe’s dependence on China for critical resources.
Joe McDonald in Beijing, Aamer Madhani in Washington, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, and Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands contributed.