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China tensions spill over as Europe moves toward Biden's side

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A major investment deal reached in December between the European Union and China — after seven years of painful negotiations — may end up being the high-water mark for ties that are quickly deteriorating again.

Since then, the EU’s executive branch and Germany have each formulated legislation that would make life harder for Chinese entities to invest, while joining the U.S. in swapping tit-for-tat sanctions with Beijing. Italy’s government has turned from an enthusiastic backer of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative to blocking planned acquisitions by Chinese companies. And in France, China’s ambassador didn’t even show up when summoned in March, citing “agenda reasons.”

Taken together, the moves signal a hardening of the European stance on Beijing. And the biggest shift could be yet to come, with polls showing the German Greens party on course for a significant role in government after September’s election, raising the prospect of a more China-skeptic chill from Europe’s biggest economy.

Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang last week, and the two pledged closer cooperation on COVID-19 vaccines and fighting climate change. Yet the talk in Berlin is that optimism around the relationship is gone, and one Chinese official characterized ties with Europe as on a downward trajectory. Whether the Greens come to power in Germany or not, EU-China relations are at a critical juncture, said the official, asking not to be identified speaking about strategic matters.

The multiple signs of strain suggest Europe’s biggest players are moving closer to the views of President Joe Biden’s administration in its standoff with China. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds talks in London this week with his Group of Seven counterparts, a Europe more aligned with Washington would signal some repair to the damage done to transatlantic ties by the Trump administration, with implications for trade, tariffs and access to technology.

“There’s been a mood shift,” said Joerg Wuttke, Beijing-based president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China and a board member of the Mercator Institute of China Studies in Berlin, one of the entities sanctioned by China in March.

 

He cited the “perfect storm” of China’s assertiveness toward Taiwan, its move to impose political control over Hong Kong, and international sanctions over alleged human-rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, overlaid by the fact that China hasn’t followed through on its promises of opening up economically.

To be sure, Europe is not uniform in its outlook, with EU members such as Hungary still eager to engage with China. And whereas Biden has said that China can expect “extreme competition” from the U.S. while it also seeks to work with it on global issues such as climate change, Europe faces more of a dilemma as its strives to forge its own path.

Economic ties remain paramount since China is the EU’s biggest trading partner, with a total volume of some $686 billion in 2020 outstripping U.S.-China trade of $572 billion. Yet now even the Netherlands, which is among China’s top 10 trading partners, is growing more wary, protecting its high-tech companies from takeover and enacting a dedicated China strategy. According to the Chinese official, the U.S. has forced the EU to take sides.

The sentiment was different just four months ago when Merkel helped steer the bloc to seal the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, which Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said was “an important landmark in our relationship with China.” Still subject to ratification by the European Parliament, it would provide improved access to the Chinese market for European investors while committing China to “ambitious principles” including on forced labor.

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