Analysis | Europe’s hawkishness on China comes into focus


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The leaders summit of the Group of Seven wealthy democracies, hosted over the weekend in Japan, triggered a new round of jostling with China. A sternly worded G-7 communiqué urged Beijing to do more to stop Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, condemned its supposed “malign” trade practices and vowed to “foster resilience to economic coercion” — that is, insulate their economies from being overexposed to China’s booming market and export industry. Still, the main communiqué insisted that the bloc’s nations “stand prepared to build constructive and stable relations with China.” But the reaction from Beijing made clear China’s dim view of the approach taken by the United States and some of its closest allies.

China summoned the Japanese ambassador in Beijing on Monday for a dressing down about what a Chinese diplomat described as the G-7’s “bloc confrontation and Cold War mentality.” A Chinese Foreign Ministry statement over the weekend lambasted G-7 bullying: “The era when a few developed countries in the West willfully interfered in the internal affairs of other countries and manipulated global affairs is gone forever,” it read.

Yet little that was announced regarding China by the G-7 leaders in Japan ought to be a surprise. The summit offered the latest evidence of a more hawkish Western view of China coming into focus. It came on the heels of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s remarks in March about the need to “de-risk” — if not “decouple” — her continent’s economies from China, protecting supply chains, digital networks and limiting the transfers of sensitive technology to Chinese companies. Last month, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan touted the necessity of export controls on any goods and technology that “could tilt the military balance” in China’s favor.

“All of the G7 countries do not have a hardline approach on China but they can agree on where they need to protect themselves against China and the newest element [to that debate] is how they need to respond against economic coercion,” Ryo Sahashi, associate professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo, explained to the Financial Times.

Away from the G-7, non-Western powers seek peace in Ukraine

In Europe, the shift has been palpable. While trade remains robust between the European Union and China, policymakers in many of the continent’s capitals share the United States’ skepticism and growing apprehensions about Chinese influence, the reach of Chinese technology companies and the footprint of Beijing’s ambitious global infrastructure projects. Italy appears to be preparing to exit China’s Belt and Road Initiative, after becoming the first G-7 nation to sign up for it in 2019.

“We are no longer this naive continent that thinks, ‘Wow, the wonderful China market, look at these opportunities!’” Philippe Le Corre, a French analyst with the Asia Society Policy Institute, said to my colleagues. “I think everyone has got it.”

“Hopes that China would help boost Europe’s economies have been clouded by concerns about competition, influence and exposure,” my colleagues wrote Monday. “Beijing’s authoritarian turn under President Xi Jinping, its belligerence toward self-ruled Taiwan and its failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have all raised alarms. European policymakers are wary after seeing how dependence on Russian energy limited their leverage when President Vladimir Putin’s tanks rolled toward Kyiv.”

In a statement after the meeting, the G-7 cited a particular episode of Chinese “coercion” — when China halted most of its imports from Lithuania in 2021 after the small Baltic state allowed self-ruling Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius under the name of “Taiwan.” For Beijing, such a designation crosses a red line; other countries, including the United States, host Taiwanese offices that go under the name of “Taipei,” which is more acceptable to China.

But Lithuania decided not to back down in its standoff with China, and two years later, seems vindicated in its approach. Taiwan’s office remains — its name intact — but trade with China has been restored, though ambassadors have not returned to either country. “We were decoupled by China,” Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, recently told the Wall Street Journal, “but we showed that it was possible to withstand it, and not lower our threshold when it comes to values.”

Landsbergis is one of Europe’s most outspoken top diplomats on China, and recently blasted Beijing on social media after a Chinese diplomat on French television seemed to question the sovereignty of post-Soviet states like Lithuania. He cited the remarks as evidence for “why the Baltic States don’t trust China to ‘broker peace in Ukraine.’” He issued a lengthy tweet thread after French President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial visit to China, which critics argued was too conciliatory to Beijing. “We chose not to see the threat of Russian aggression, and now we are choosing not to see the threat of Chinese aggression,” Landsbergis wrote in the days after Macron’s trip. “We are on the verge of repeating the same mistake.”

Like other officials from countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Landsbergis pointed to his country’s experience emerging out of the shadow of the Soviet Union as a reason for its tougher view of both Moscow and Beijing. “Maybe I’m flattering my country, but I tend to believe that we feel the wind of geopolitical upheaval maybe better than others,” Landsbergis told the Wall Street Journal. “Maybe that’s because we were born out of it. And it’s still alive, very much alive.”

Lithuania is not alone in overtly embracing Taiwan. In March, the speaker of the lower house of the Czech Parliament led a 150-member delegation to the island nation. The two countries agreed to a slate of deals that irked China, including arms transfers and agreements to collaborate on drone research and deepen ties between national security think tanks.

In an interview earlier this month with The Washington Post, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky said that his government had no interest in “provoking” China or crossing “red lines,” but hailed the “strong relationship” between Taiwan and the Czech Republic. He described Beijing’s signature attempt to build a wedge in Europe with an investment initiative involving a bloc of what was once 17 mostly Eastern European countries — now just 14 — as “not something that now has any kind of relevance.”

Lipavsky was sanguine that the 27 member states of the European Union are still struggling to find consensus on China. “It’s a fact that European countries do not have a strong common position which we could be using as a tool in a relationship toward China,” he told me. “But we have a common understanding that China represents opportunities and that China represents threats. And on the latter one, we have a common understanding that we need to be aware of that and work on possible measures [in response].”

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