Brussels, Belgium – The heads of the 27 member states are set to meet in Brussels for a two-day summit this week during which they will discuss foreign policy issues on Friday, including the bloc’s China strategy.
In his invitation letter to the leaders, the EU Council chief, Charles Michel, said that the summit will be an opportunity to “reconfirm” the bloc’s united stance towards Beijing.
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But, the 27 members of the European Union often struggle with unanimity when it comes to dealing with a wide array of internal issues, from migration to subsidies.
It is no different in foreign policy: How the EU plans to deal with China has been gnawing at the bloc over the past few years.
Grzegorz Stec, analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Brussels, told Al Jazeera that policy divergences persist among member states regarding China.
“Some view the economic security as the key issue, while others see Beijing’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the key order of the day. These differences in priorities, at times, lead to frictions,” he said.
During the past few years, the EU’s stance on China has hardened for a number of reasons, including differences over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the rise of China as a tech and economic power – viewed by some EU countries as threatening, Beijing’s military actions in the Taiwan Strait and most recently, China’s lack of condemnation of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
To some diplomats in the West, that China downplayed the mutiny of Russia’s Wagner mercenary forces over the weekend reflected the country’s strong alliance with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin – an alliance that has made them wary of Beijing.
Amid the geopolitical tensions with China and Russia, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said before a trip to Beijing in March that the bloc should focus on “de-risking” with China, rather than “de-coupling”.
Since 2019, the EU has referred to China as a “systemic rival” and “economic competitor”.
Von der Leyen revealed the EU’s plans to “enhance economic security” last week, saying that while “global integration and open economies have been a force for good”, the EU also has to be “clear-eyed about a world that has become more contested and geopolitical”.
While her plan did not openly specify that it was an economic strategy directed at China, some EU-China experts have said one of the main targets of the strategy is Beijing.
Fu Cong, China’s ambassador to the EU, told Al Jazeera that while China understands the EU’s ambitions for a resilient supply chain, the bloc “should not conflate economic security with national security, making it hurt free trade”.
Last week, the EU imposed sanctions on Chinese entities that are allegedly supporting “Russia’s military and industrial complex in its war of aggression against Ukraine” as part of an 11th sanctions package against Moscow.
Prior to the announcement of the ban, Fu said China has not committed to stopping companies from helping Russia, but he hoped through “dialogue, misunderstandings could be resolved”.
The EU also decided to relaunch its “dialogue over human rights” with China in February, two years after they had stalled talks on the issue, following rounds of tit-for-tat sanctions.
In March 2021, the EU imposed sanctions on four Chinese government officials for human rights abuses in the country’s Xinjiang province and Beijing retaliated by sanctioning members of EU entities, including those in the European Parliament.
Human rights groups have said that discussing human rights with Beijing was meaningless.
Beijing has been criticised for abusing the rights of Uighurs, as well as cracking down on lawyers and activists within the country, particularly in Hong Kong and Tibet.
Earlier this week, several rights groups penned a letter to EU leaders before their summit, calling for “pro-actively mainstream efforts on human rights in China across all of EU-China relations, avoiding opening any dialogue on mutually recognised international human rights commitments in the name of discussing divergences and instead adopting a concerted, strategic approach to challenge Chinese government policies, practices and narratives that undermine human rights”.
Amid technology ban proposals, sanctions and human rights dialogues, individual member nations of the bloc have continued to prioritise their individual national security interests instead of committing to a common China strategy.
“Eastern and Central European states will be more inclined to support Washington’s approach and tone to China,” Joris Teer, EU-China analyst at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, told Al Jazeera.
“[This is] in part because of their reliance on the US to guarantee their security vis-a-vis Russia. At the same time, the notion that China’s central role in global value chains and technology development comes with high geopolitical risk is shared among EU governments.”
The Baltic nations and Poland have been particularly frustrated with China over its renewed “no limits partnership” with Russia, making them rethink their trade ties with Beijing.
Last August, Estonia and Latvia announced that they were quitting the 16+1, an economic forum set up by China with Central and Eastern European countries 10 years ago to boost business relations.
Lithuania had already quit the forum in November 2021 and has also often backed imposing sanctions on Beijing. It has also called for reducing economic dependence on China not only because of Beijing’s alliance with Moscow, but also because of China’s actions in the Taiwan Strait.
“On Taiwan, the EU’s position remains consistent and based on its ‘One China policy’. Any unilateral change of the status quo and any use of force would have massive economic, political and security consequences,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters in May.
He also said that the EU must prepare for all scenarios and engage with China “in maintaining the status quo and work to de-escalate tensions”.
Meanwhile, the Western European nations who often steer the EU’s internal and foreign policies, such as Germany and France, have pushed to tone down the bloc’s harsh rhetoric towards Beijing over Taiwan, hoping to maintain and boost trade and business relations with China.
Last week, during a meeting in Berlin, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he had mainly urged China’s Prime Minister Li Qiang to exert “even greater influence on Russia in this war” and also ensured him that Berlin did not plan to “decouple” from Beijing, seeking to maintain trade relations.
Meanwhile, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who also met Li in Paris last week, shared a similar notion. But he avoided discussing Taiwan, after he was criticised for his comments on Taipei during his China trip in April.
In an interview with the news outlet Politico and daily Les Echos, Macron had said that the EU should not be drawn into a crisis over Taiwan due to an “American rhythm and a Chinese overreaction”. Instead, he pushed for strategic autonomy.
Mathieu Duchâtel, resident senior fellow and director of international studies at Institut Montaigne in Paris, told Al Jazeera that “Taiwan is emerging as a new divisive issue within the European Union.”
“A debate has surfaced between those who think the EU should be more proactive in taking steps that help maintain the status quo, and those who think that the EU should remain unconcerned,” he said.
With EU leaders set to debate what “de-risking” with China could mean for future relations and try to agree to a united “China strategy”, Borrell said in a speech at the EU Institute for Security Studies this week that “it is not always easy to say objectively where de-risking ends and de-coupling begins.”
“So, we need a real debate in Europe on this. Keeping in mind that the institutions can propose, but it is member states that decide,” he said.
According to a draft of the EU Council conclusion seen by Politico, EU leaders are expected to say that the bloc “does not intend to decouple or to turn inwards” – nor does it design policies “to harm China nor to thwart China’s economic progress and development”.
“De-risking is the consensual conclusion,” Duchâtel said.
“It clearly signals that only a fragment of trade, investment and people-to-people relations between the EU and China is being securitised. This reflects the reality,” he said.
Duchâtel also said that the transatlantic partnership with the US could weigh in as a “structural determinant of European foreign policy”.
“It is natural for the EU to coordinate with its more important ally on China policy, especially as the EU and the US converge on their assessment of China’s domestic governance trends and international ambitions,” he said.
“There is, however, a force within Europe that seeks to prevent an excessively aggressive China policy by the US and the EU. Europe is both a faithful ally and a brake,” Duchâtel said.
“Of course, China’s support for Russia has seriously undermined China’s image across Europe, and so far Chinese diplomacy has failed at its attempt at damage control,” he added.
Stec, the MERICS analyst, expected policy divergences to continue between EU member states. “A fully united EU policy on China would require a fully united EU foreign policy overall. This, in turn, would require a revision of EU treaties and that seems unlikely at this point,” he added.