European Union raises tone against China, fears economic dependence

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Meeting in Brussels, European Union leaders held a round of meetings in the last two days that had on the agenda what was called “a strategic debate on relations with China”. In practice, the speeches observed there raised the tone against the country and called for a review of economic partnerships with Beijing.

Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said the bloc is witnessing an acceleration of tensions with China. “The Chinese system is fundamentally different from ours, and we are aware of this rivalry,” she said.

He was referring in particular to the one-party dictatorship that prevails in the Asian power —against the liberal democracies touted, sometimes with difficulty, by the EU— and to Beijing’s economic agenda.

There was no lack of comments in defense of greater protectionism of the European market against possible dependence on China. “Critical infrastructure must not be sold to authoritarian regimes,” said Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin.

For Emmanuel Macron, President of France, Marin’s message arrives with some delay. “The EU has made strategic mistakes in the past by selling infrastructure to Beijing,” he said.

Von der Leyen herself returned to the subject. She said that, in light of the lesson learned from Russia’s reliance on gas amid the Ukraine War, one needs to “be vigilant towards China”. “In the Chinese case, there is a risk of dependence on technologies and raw materials,” she said, adding that the EU needs to look for reliable suppliers.

The war in Eastern Europe also entered the list of criticisms of Beijing, which has been calling for peace agreements, but has remained neutral during UN votes that seek to condemn the invasion led by Moscow. The conflict has also contributed to closer, largely economic ties between Russia and China following Western sanctions against the regime led by Xi Jinping.

The prime minister of the former Soviet republic of Latvia, Krisjanis Karins, said the EU should seek dialogue with China so that the country “adopts the right side of history” with regard to the war.

The critical speeches amid Beijing’s first meeting in twelve months on the official agenda come the same week that China holds the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China. During his speech at the opening of the event, Xi, as is usual, did not name other countries by name. But he has established his leadership, which is heading towards a third term in an increasingly personal way.

The view on the Asian country is not exactly new either. The EU’s main trading partner since 2020, when it overtook the United States, China was described in 2019 by the bloc as a “partner for common goals”, a “systemic rival that propagates another type of regime” and an “economic competitor”.

It was up to the President of the European Council, the Belgian Charles Michel, to tone down the speech and bring the first of the three topics to the agenda. “China is a necessary contributor,” he said. “The discussion showed a very clear desire to avoid being naive, but we also don’t want to embark on a logic of confrontation.”

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez echoed: “China is a potential competitor, but also a necessary contributor to global challenges.” The two mentioned health and climate as priority areas for joint action.

The German Prime Minister, Olaf Scholz, was challenged at the meeting. With a trip to China scheduled for the beginning of November, he is preparing to agree on the possible purchase of parts of a port terminal in Hamburg by the Chinese state-owned company Cosco.

His government is divided on the issue, seen as an important indicator of how far Berlin is willing to toughen up on its main trading partner.

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