EU chooses to “de-risk” rather than decouple with China

Posted on : 2023-05-18 17:21 KST Modified on : 2023-05-18 17:23 KST
With growing competition between the US and China and China’s collaboration with Russia, the EU faces the challenge of having to reset its relationship with China
Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs. (AP/Yonhap)
Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs. (AP/Yonhap)

“We have to engage with China in many fronts, for many different issues, and at the same time, we have to compete with China and to decrease our dependencies when these dependencies become too big and so risky,” said Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, in a press conference in Stockholm on Friday. Borrell’s press conference followed a meeting with the foreign ministers of the EU’s 27 member states as they discuss revising the bloc’s policy on China.

With China’s strategic competition with the US intensifying under the Biden administration and China’s strategic collaboration with Russia increasing since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU faces the challenge of how to reset its relationship with China.

In a nod to the gravity of that dilemma, the foreign ministers’ meeting went on for four long hours.

The conclusion reached by the EU is that while relations with China need to be adjusted, the approach should be de-risking, rather than decoupling.

“[The EU foreign ministers] agree on the basic lines of this recalibration of our strategy on China, considering the recent domestic evolution in China and the foreign policy trajectories,” Borrell said.

“We continue with a triptych because it reflects reality,” the EU diplomat said, calling China a “rival” in terms of its system, a “partner” in areas of interest, and a “competitor” in terms of economics.

“And [lately], the dimension of ‘rival’ has become more and more important, at the same time that the complexity of our relations with China has been increasing.”

Borrell’s mention of “the recent domestic evolution in China” is thought to signify human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong epitomized by extradition and security legislation. His mention of “foreign policy trajectories” appears to refer to China’s ambiguous stance on Russia’ invasion of Ukraine in late February last year and its saber-rattling against Taiwan.

Borrell’s comments made plain that if China continues on its current course, the EU will be forced to shift emphasis to China’s status as a rival, even while retaining the current multifaceted view of China as partner, competitor and rival.

In regard to the EU’s strategy of de-risking, Borrell called it “risky” when dependencies become too big, citing the example of Europe’s overreliance on Russian natural gas. The EU depends upon China for 80% of its solar panels, 98% of its rare earths and 97% of its lithium, a mineral used to make batteries.

The draft of a China strategy paper that was submitted on the same day by the European External Action Service reportedly said that China clearly seeks to build a new world order organized around itself.

In regard to the war in Ukraine, which has redrawn the security landscape in Europe, the draft warned that China’s relationship with the EU will face major repercussions if China provides Russia with military support or helps it dodge sanctions. In regard to Taiwan, the draft said the EU would cooperate with its democratic partners to block unilateral attempts to change the status quo.

Based on the matters discussed in the meeting on May 12, the leaders of the UK, France, Germany and Italy are expected to announce a plan to strengthen solidarity with major countries in the Indo-Pacific, including South Korea, in the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima on May 19-21.

Relations between the West and China have faced several major hiccups over the years. After the Sino-American détente in the early 1970s, the US and Europe hoped that economic growth in China would shape it into a “responsible power” that would accept the universal values of democracy and market economy.

But in the early 2010s, China began to brazenly disregard the sovereignty of other countries in the East China Sea and South China Sea. In addition, China’s aggressive pursuit of the US in semiconductors and other high-tech sectors prompted major changes in the West’s policy toward China.

In the “National Security Strategy” published last October, the US pointedly described China as “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the [. . .] power to advance that objective.”

While the EU has maintained its traditional stance that China is a “strategic partner,” it also delineated a complex view of China as partner, competitor and rival in “EU-China Strategic Outlook,” released in March 2019.

When European leaders meet at the end of June, they’re expected to sign off on a new policy toward China that will take a harder line than in 2019. That policy was elaborated by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a March 30 speech.

“I believe it is neither viable — nor in Europe\'s interest — to decouple from China. Our relations are not black or white, and our response cannot be either. This is why we need to focus on de-risk, not de-couple,” von der Leyen said in the speech.

Last year, China was the No. 1 importer of goods from the EU (worth 626 billion euros) and the No. 3 exporter of goods to the EU (worth 230.3 billion euros).

The EU made clear that rather than scrapping its long-standing policy toward China, it will adjust that policy to a changed environment.

That prompted US national security advisor Jake Sullivan to note during a speech at the Brookings Institution on April 27 that “bilateral trade between the United States and China set a new record last year” and that the US is “looking to manage competition responsibly and seeking to work together with China where we can.”

The EU’s pragmatic approach offers considerable food for thought for South Korea, which is caught in the middle of the US-China conflict. Europe is specifying the kind of relationship it wants to have with China without downplaying the complexity of that relationship and making an effort to minimize risk.

That’s a far cry from Korea, which gets entangled in a false dilemma between siding with the US or China every time a new administration comes to power, which only puts Korea in greater peril.

Nicola Beer, vice president of the European Parliament, told the Hankyoreh in an interview on Monday that whether Europe’s approach to China will be de-risking or decoupling is up to China.

Beer said Europe hopes China will create fair conditions in the market and refrain from unilateral attempts to change the status quo in keeping with the rules-based order.

By Noh Ji-won, Berlin correspondent

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