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Trip to China shows EU leaders straddling Beijing-Washington divide

European foreign policy makers have come up with a new strategy for relations with China: “De-risking.” While not going as far as Washington's push to “decouple” from Beijing, the EU is talking about lessening its dependence on China.

(CN) — A new word has sprung up in European geopolitical circles when it comes to China: They're talking about “de-risking.”

This concept involves the European Union's careful lessening of dependence on China's economy but not advocating a drastic cutting of ties with the Asian superpower.

It is the EU's response to U.S. President Joe Biden's insistence that the West must “decouple” from China, a strategy that implies a clear separation from China's economy in a bid to contain Beijing's rising power.

The U.S. has initiated its decoupling by restricting the flow of semiconductor technology to China and making moves to ban the TikTok app and regulate U.S. investment in China.

The EU's new de-risking policy was put to the test this week with a high-profile trip to China by French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Macron was scheduled to fly back to France late Friday while Von der Leyen left Thursday.

This was the first trip by Macron and von der Leyen to China since the coronavirus pandemic and followed recent visits to Beijing by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. Next week, the EU's chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, is scheduled to visit Beijing too.

China only recently threw open its borders after lifting its zero-Covid policy that sparked large-scale protests. The flurry of trips by European leaders to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping highlights how important trade is for the each side.

About 9% of EU exports go to China while about 20% of its imports come from China. With the EU such a big market for China, the hope is that European leaders can persuade Xi to back away from his support for Russia and scale back his global ambitions.

Macron and von der Leyen, though, went to Beijing with seemingly discordant missions: Von der Leyen talked the tough language of de-risking while Macron tried to ease tensions and boost trade between France and China. About 50 businessmen joined Macron on his three-day trip and several business deals were inked. He also met with Chinese students and held dinners with Xi.

“Now you have a good cop and bad cop both visiting China,” said Zongyuan Liu, a China expert on the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think tank, during a discussion on France 24 television.

But Macron and von der Leyen appeared to be on the same page in asking Xi to help bring an end to the war in Ukraine. China has proposed a peace plan, but its conditions are deemed favorable to Russia and the White House has rejected it.

Macron and von der Leyen said they told Xi to “bring Russia to its senses and bring everyone back to the negotiating table.”

But Xi did not budge and said the “legitimate security concerns of all parties” need to taken into consideration, a statement that aligns with Moscow's arguments.

European companies and economies are deeply invested in China and there are fears of a massive rupture if relations break down over a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan or the risk of China sending arms shipments to Russia to fight its war in Ukraine.

The de-risking policy and a harsher EU view of China's rising power were spelled out in an uncompromising speech by von der Leyen on March 30 at a think tank in Brussels.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a March 29, 2023, ceremony for the Good Friday Agreement at a plenary session in the European Parliament in Brussels. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

In the speech, von der Leyen said China was “becoming more repressive at home and more assertive abroad.”

She cited Xi's “no-limits friendship” agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin; Beijing's refusal to condemn Russia for attacking Ukraine; evidence of human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region; its growing global influence through the Belt and Road Initiative; the buildup of its military strength and the Chinese Communist Party's exertion of ever more authoritarian control over the Chinese economy.


“China has now turned the page on the era of ‘reform and opening' and is moving into a new era of security and control,” she said. “We can expect to see a clear path and push to make China less dependent on the world and the world more dependent on China.”

The EU president warned that the Chinese state under Xi's leadership wants to make the world economy dependent on China. She said China's dominance in critical raw materials like lithium or cobalt pose risks because they are so important in the development of high-speed rail, renewable energy, quantum computing, robotics and artificial intelligence.

She said the EU must see its own security as being more important than “the logic of free markets and open trade.”

“The Chinese Communist Party's clear goal is a systemic change of the international order with China at its center,” von der Leyen said.

She cited Chinese efforts to build banking and trade organizations “to rival the current international system.”

China's recent success in brokering a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to get those two Middle East rivals to resume diplomatic ties was more evidence of Beijing's growing power in the world, she said.

Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, efforts by non-Western powers to move away from the dollar-dominated international trading system have accelerated with Russia and China leading the charge.

Von der Leyen said the West must be wary of China's ambitions and pointed to a recent visit Xi made to Putin.

“Most telling were President Xi's parting words to Putin on the steps outside the Kremlin when he said: ‘Right now, there are changes, the likes of which we have not seen for 100 years. And we are the ones driving these changes together,'” she said.

Therefore, the EU must work with China but also reevaluate its relationship, she added.

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

She said having an “open and frank exchange with our Chinese counterparts is a key part of what I would call the de-risking through diplomacy.”

Additionally, the EU must “reassess” a major trade deal the EU signed with China in December 2020, she argued.

“We know there are some areas where trade and investment poses risks to our economic and national security, particularly in the context of China's explicit fusion of its military and commercial sectors,” she said. “This is true for certain sensitive technologies, dual-use goods or even investment which comes with forced technology or knowledge transfers. This is why – after de-risking through diplomacy – the second strand of our future China strategy must be economic de-risking.”

There is a sense in Europe that neither side can afford to entirely cut off relations.

“China and Europe are standing at a door that neither wants to close,” wrote La Stampa, an Italian newspaper. “And even if they disagree on how open it should remain, they are eager to see any sign that could serve as an excuse not to slam it shut.”

In going to China, the newspaper said Macron and von der Leyen declared they had a “goal of creating a distance between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.”

But it added that the two European leaders also knew that China “wants to create distance between the EU and the U.S.” and that “they are all aware that the distances will remain, but no one wants to make them unbridgeable.”

A cartoon in the French newspaper L'Opinion summed up that sentiment well: It depicted Macron and von der Leyen stuck in a yawning crack opening up in the earth between Biden and Xi. The two European leaders straddled the canyon, trying to act as a bridge.

In a speech bubble, Macron the cartoon says to Xi: “Out of respect for Buddhism, we choose the middle path.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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