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Beijing’s “Year of Europe” launched against head winds

MERICS , Berlin­
­Back in December, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised an audience of policymakers in Brussels that Europe would be high on Beijing’s diplomatic agenda for 2020. The conclusion of a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with the EU – under negotiation since 2014 – by the end of this year was its top economic priority.

China’s diplomatic offensive in Europe over the past two weeks – a counter-response to recent visits by White House officials – has confirmed Beijing’s unprecedented attention for the region. Now all eyes are on a video conference scheduled for September 14 between Chinese President Xi Jinping, EU leaders Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as holder of the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU.

Minister Wang and Chinese Communist Party’s top diplomat and Politburo member Yang Jiechi have just completed a tour of seven European countries, which they hoped would set the stage for next week’s meeting. The reception they received, however, was rougher than expected. Wang’s calls to uphold multilateralism and focus on CAI were met with criticism of Beijing’s human rights violations in Xinjiang and its imposition of a National Security Law (NSL) in Hong Kong. A further bone of contention was the Hong Kong Legislative Council elections, which were originally scheduled for September 6 but have been postponed to next year. Hong Kong police forcefully dispersed protests on Sunday, arresting some 300 people. A video of an officer tackling down a 12-year-old girl went viral.  

In Berlin, German foreign minister Heiko Maas got straight to the point and called for China to withdraw the NSL. He also asked for a UN observer mission to Xinjiang. If that was not enough, the German government chose the day of Wang’s visit to Germany to release its Indo-Pacific strategy, formally adopting a concept that was seen until recently as too confrontational towards Beijing.

While Yang’s trip to Greece and Spain was lower key, he also did not hear the exclusively positive words that Chinese officials have been accustomed to in their visits to Europe. In Spain’s official readout of the meeting with Yang there was no failure to mention 5G networks security or Beijing’s behavior in Hong Kong and the South China Sea.

What to watch: Wang and Yang may be feeling bruised by their reception in Europe, but European governments still remain open to cooperation with Beijing both economically and on the Covid-19 pandemic. The trip has made clear, however, that they expect China to deliver concrete results and will not just accept the usual promises of economic opening. Xi Jinping has emphasized the driving role of Chinese SOEs in China’s post-pandemic economic recovery – adding to already-existing obstacles that make the conclusion of a CAI by year end unlikely.  

MERICS analysis: “Now the ball is in China’s court. If Beijing wants to avoid alienating Europe any further and prevent the creation of a Transatlantic front on China – the prospects of which would be more likely in the event that Joe Biden wins the US Presidential elections in November – at next Monday’s meeting Xi needs to be ready to walk the talk on investment negotiations,” says MERICS analyst, Lucrezia Poggetti.


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