Europe and China’s ‘virtual summit’: An anticlimax

Contribution to a ChinaFile conversation.

The virtual meeting of German and EU leaders with Xi Jinping on Monday had a distinct feel of anticlimax. Originally meant, together with the China-EU Summit in June, to bring about a breakthrough in the relationship to crown the German EU Presidency and chancellor Angela Merkel’s steadfast efforts to cultivate China, it had no such effect.

Even in Germany, the country in Europe with the most substantial economic relationship with the PRC, the “change through trade” policy seems to be going the way of “engagement” in the U.S. The atmosphere in Europe has changed markedly since Germany planned its presidency a year ago. On top of long-term trade and investment complaints, the crackdown in Xinjiang, the coronavirus crisis with its facemask diplomacy, and, above all, Hong Kong didn’t help much to heal the broken trust.

The simmering frustration occasionally boils over in the EU politicians’ statements. Josep Borrell greeted Wang Yi in his recent attempt to mend ties with two articles describing China as a “new empire.” Old diplomatic taboos are crumbling, as demonstrated by an open call this week by several European heavyweights for the EU to “revisit” its one-China policy. The heretical call came on the heels of an official visit to Taiwan by Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil, performed despite high-pitched Chinese opposition.

Europe being Europe, its growing disenchantment with China is less dramatic than the U.S.’s, but the process is similar. The EU doesn’t “decouple”; it “diversifies.” It doesn’t do trade wars; it corrects trade imbalances. Despite the nuances, Europe is clearly edging closer to the U.S. in its position on China. Should a candidate more palatable to the European sensitivities come on top in November, this closing of ranks in the jolted transatlantic alliance might accelerate.

Publication of this article: ChinaFile, 18.9.2020