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AsiaThe quest for an autonomous EU-China relationship generates tensions among the EU...

The quest for an autonomous EU-China relationship generates tensions among the EU 27

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The French president makes European partners uncomfortable with his statements on the need to distance himself from the US on foreign policy, with reference to Taiwan. Poland revolts as Germany says the EU cannot be “indifferent”.

Article by Irene Castro – Correspondent in Brussels for ELDIARIO.ES – Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) Translated by The European Times.

A cooperative partner, a difficult competitor and a systemic rival. Three definitions that may even seem contradictory to define the EU’s relationship with China. These are the rules of the game that the leaders of the EU-27 established last October in the run-up to the preparations for the search for a rapprochement with the Asian giant, which is revealing the differences in the European club and even bringing tensions to the surface.

The EU has long been searching for its place in a polarised world. While Brussels has been engaged in preparing for the US-China trade war and much of its policies in recent months have been aimed at minimising dependence on Xi Jinping’s regime in the face of mistrust, the EU has been reviving diplomatic relations at various levels without losing sight of the strategic relationship with the United States.

“Efforts are moving in the same direction. Nobody in Europe, whatever you call the government or the member of the Commission, wants to disengage from China and go to two blocs in this world. Everyone says we need to engage with China, but do it responsibly and on the basis of European interests. We cannot be blind to the risks and dependencies’, summarises a European source.

This is what European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen argued in a speech in which she laid the groundwork for the relationship before travelling to Beijing. There she repeated the same message. Before Xi Jinping, the head of the EU executive complained about the “imbalances” in trade relations. Moreover, the German leader made it clear that the EU’s relationship with China will depend on the position it maintains with Russia regarding the war in Ukraine. The EU has come to the conclusion that only Xi Jinping can convince Vladimir Putin.

Von der Leyen’s tone was much harsher than that of French President Emmanuel Macron, whom she accompanied on that visit. “I know I can count on you to bring Russia to its senses and to bring everyone to the negotiating table,” said the liberal leader, who was received in luxury by Xi Jinping not only in Beijing but also at a dinner in Canton. Macron, who travelled accompanied by businessmen, secured economic benefits, including an order for 160 aircraft from the Chinese leasing company CASC to Airbus.

It was Macron, whose visit had already raised suspicions among allies since the announcement, who sparked the storm. If Beijing is asking for greater autonomy for the EU vis-à-vis the United States, it is precisely what the French president defended as soon as he took off after his trip to China. In an interview granted to the newspapers Les Echos and Politico during the flight home, Macron defended the need for the EU-27 to have “strategic autonomy” and to be a “third pole” with respect to these two opposing powers.

Macron argued that Europeans cannot be “vassals” of their allies, in reference to the US. And he was referring specifically to Taiwan, which is one of the focal points of tension between China and the US. “The worst thing would be to believe that we Europeans would have to follow in this matter and adapt to the pace of the United States and to an overreaction by China”, Macron argued at a time when China had deployed military manoeuvres with simulated attacks from aircraft carriers around the island in response to the trip by the president, Tsai Ing-wen, to California.

“We want good friends, we want partners, but we always want to be in a position to choose them, not depend on them”, he reaffirmed at an event a few days later in The Hague, where he warned the Europeans that if sovereignty is lost and dependence on other powers “they will no longer decide on their own”.

The position on Taiwan placed Brussels in a complex position and strained partners on both sides of the Atlantic. The EU government was at pains to make clear that the EU’s position on the island has not changed. “There is a well-established ‘one China’ policy and we continue to call for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and take a clear position against any desire to unilaterally change the status quo, in particular through the use of force,” the spokesperson responded. The EU has important trade relations with Taiwan, but does not recognise it as a sovereign state.

The most vocal against Macron was Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who was just starting a trip to the US. “They are looking short-sightedly at China in order to sell more EU products there at a huge geopolitical cost, making us more dependent on China, not less,” he said in Washington, with whom he is more closely aligned. “You can’t protect Ukraine today and tomorrow by saying that Taiwan is none of your business,” he warned, according to AFP: “I think that, God forbid, if Ukraine falls, if Ukraine is conquered, the next day China could attack, can attack, Taiwan. EPP leader Manfred Weber had spoken in similar terms in an interview in which he said the EU should “be on the side of Ukraine and Taiwan”.

Once again, these statements made Brussels uncomfortable, where it was pointed out that the EU is not involved in a war situation over the island.

More diplomatic was the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, who distanced herself from Macron by assuring that Europe “cannot be indifferent” to the tensions over Taiwan during her visit to China and defended the establishment of alliances with partners who share European values in reference to the US when facing “security threats” such as Russia, reports Politico.

The US government avoided drawing blood with Macron’s position. “France is our oldest ally. The values we share have guided our relationship and continue to do so today,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told a press conference, reports Agencia EFE. However, his words did not go unnoticed and were questioned by Republican politicians.

Brussels is trying to calm the waters and play down the tensions. “We have a number of member states with a significant variation of emphasis, but they all agree with the general policy towards China, which was reaffirmed at the October European Council,” says a European source on the trinomial “partner”, “competitor” and “rival” on the basis of which the EU is seeking its own relationship with China.

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