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China-Europe relations at crossroads

The perception of China is rapidly changing. As the European Union (EU) starts looking at China with suspicion, the political discourse of the bloc and its member states is gradually toughening. Evidence of the shift in Europe’s perceptions became clearer when major European countries, including Italy and Sweden, started to push back against China’s attempts at controlling economies and gaining a strategic foothold in the continent.

Italy, China’s closest partner in the G-7 bloc, has said the memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China on the latter’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was a mistake. Under President Xi Jinping, China is different from what it was in the past, it said. “The memorandum of understanding on the silk routes with China was a mistake. Xi’s China is no longer what it used to be,” Vincenzo Amendola, Italian Minister for European Affairs, said on 19 October.

Recently, Italy agreed to support its EU allies as the bloc toughened its stance on China. The Italian minister said that the EU states have for too long failed “to make reciprocity a priority” with China.

Meanwhile, Sweden has banned China’s Huawei and ZTE from its 5G network. Earlier, the United Kingdom banned Huawei from 5G while France and Germany have limited Huawei’s operations. Sweden banned the use of telecommunications equipment from Huawei and ZTE in its 5G network ahead of the government’s spectrum auction scheduled for November.

The European Commission has issued 5G technology guidelines and a white paper on foreign subsidies. It has also launched a connectivity strategy, which hopes to offer a European alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The annual EU-China summit, which took place on June 22, highlighted irreconcilable differences over issues like Hong Kong, cyber-security and human rights. Nothing conclusive on the economic front was agreed upon.

With the world economy mired in a downturn, concerns are growing over unfair competition from outside Europe, as EU warned about the need to shield European industries and introduce tougher mechanisms to vet Chinese
acquisition attempts. EU’s patience is wearing out on the question of equal access to China’s market and an end to state subsidies.

Last year was considered to be a turning point in the EU’s bilateral relations with China after the March edition of the ‘EU-China Strategic Outlook’ labelled China as a “systemic rival.”

EU-China relations have reached a point, where there is an increasing political price to pay for economic co-operation. Apart from economy-centered issues, the year 2020 has raised major political concerns. The coronavirus pandemic has been a significant factor in souring EU-China relations to its lowest levels since the two formally established diplomatic ties 45 years ago. Besides, the Chinese government is also widely considered responsible
for the severity of the pandemic.

First, the lack of transparency during the Covid 19 crisis and then the aggressive attitude of the Chinese diplomats focused on ‘wolf warrior diplomacy to its ‘mask diplomacy’ since the pandemic outbreak which affected several European countries especially France, Sweden, Germany has completely changed the governments’, Parliaments’ and public opinions’ perception of China in Europe.

Second, the imposition of the PRC National security law in Hong Kong on June 30 was perceived in many countries as a violation of Hong Kong domestic legislation as well as of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the status of Hong Kong. The shared feeling in Europe, which was repeatedly stated by the European External Action Service (EEAS), is that the law seriously undermines the “one country two systems” principle.

Third, new revelations on the repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang has increased public outcry in Europe. And a fourth, separate although important issue within the relation currently is, indeed, the 5G issue. No European country has explicitly barred Chinese 5G infrastructure providers Huawei essentially from its market so far, but the trend appears to favor European providers Nokia and Ericsson.

Chinese officials have again threatened reprisals in case governments forbade Huawei’s market access.
According to a recent poll, 60 per cent of people in the UK and France, and 47 per cent of Germans see the Chinese government as a bad actor. That is to say, European attitudes toward China are unquestionably hardening across the

The three main concerns, the aggressive attitude of Chinese diplomats, the suppression of pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, and of the Uighurs in Xinjiang are becoming unavoidable topics for EU institutions and member states’ governments because they directly contradict European ‘core values’. Vice-President of the European Commission and High Representative of the EU, Josep Borrell asserted that the EU has been too naive when it concerned China, and he advocated that trust, transparency and reciprocity be the watchwords for EU-China, thus pointing out the lack thereof..