A key European leader has highlighted China’s trade war with Australia in a major speech calling for a rethink of the continent’s relationship with the superpower, based in part on the approach Beijing takes to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday said the “Chinese Communist Party’s clear goal is a systemic change of the international order with China at its centre”.
She called for the 27-nation bloc to “de-risk” its economic and diplomatic relationship with Beijing but to maintain ties with a “vital trading partner”, noting most trade wasn’t in any way “risky”.
Speaking before a trip to China planned for next week, she said the superpower had been ramping up militarily, economically and in terms of trade and misinformation.
The policy was designed to ensure other countries’ compliance, she said, highlighting “retaliatory measures” in Lithuania and other EU states, as well as Australia.
“We have seen that Member States increasingly have to deal with Chinese activities in their societies which are not tolerable,” she said, in a speech to the Mercator Institute for China Studies.
“And we have seen it in the region — for example when China severely restricted Australian exports of barley and wine because of its government’s questions on the origin of COVID-19. “This is all part of a deliberate use of dependencies and economic leverage to ensure that China gets what it wants from smaller countries.”
The address, dubbed by one Europe-China watcher as “the speech on China that Europe has been waiting for”, came amid diplomatic tensions between the power centres, particularly regarding China’s tacit support for Russia’s war on Ukraine.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez are due in China in the coming days and von der Leyen extensively referenced Putin’s meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Moscow last week.
She said the relationship between the two countries had flipped, with Beijing now in the driver’s seat, seeing “Putin’s weakness as a way to increase its leverage over Russia”.
The European leader reiterated calls for China to use its influence to help bring peace to Ukraine, which has been fighting off an unprovoked Russian invasion for more than a year now.
“That peace can only be just if it is based on upholding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” von der Leyen said.
“Ukraine will define the terms of a just peace that requires the withdrawal of invading troops. Any peace plan which would in effect consolidate Russian annexations is simply not a viable plan.
“We have to be frank on this point. How China continues to interact with Putin’s war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward.”
Europe-China relations expert Noah Barkin described the speech as a “clear-eyed, confident vision for the relationship that acknowledges China has changed & that Europe’s response must too, with an economic security strategy at its core”.
“Von der Leyen is throwing down the gauntlet to those in Europe who still harbour illusions about partnership w/China,” the Rhodium Group and German Marshall Fund researcher said, on Twitter.
“These include Macron, w/whom she will travel to Beijing next week. It is a bold move but her message is overdue.
“The reactions in [France] and [Germany] will be interesting.”
Going forward von der Leyen wants Europe to stop “sensitive technologies” that could be used in security crackdowns or to restrict human rights from falling into Beijing’s hands and focus on working more closely with other partners.
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“As part of this, we will focus on free trade agreements where we do not yet have them – such as with New Zealand, Australia, India, our ASEAN and Mercosur partners – on modernising agreements where we have them – such as those with Mexico and Chile – and on better using the others that already exist,” she said.
The commission, the EU’s executive branch, manages international trade on behalf of the 27 member countries and defends their interests at the World Trade Organisation.
– With Associated Press
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Last modified: January 10, 2023