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12th May 2021

Ashton pragmatic on China in EU foreign policy blueprint

  • Ashton presented the paper - a major marker in her EU foreign policy career - at the EU summit in Brussels (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Catherine Ashton has recommended to EU leaders to drop an arms embargo on China as part of a major foreign policy review which urges the Union to boost relations with Beijing in order to remain relevant on the world stage.

"The current arms embargo is a major impediment for developing stronger EU-China co-operation on foreign policy and security matters. The EU should assess its practical implication and design a way forward," she said in a 19-page strategy paper preented at the EU summit in Brussels on Friday morning (17 December) and seen by EUobserver.

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Looking at EU relations with China, Russia and the US in the context of "a different, more complex world" defined by the emergence of new powers, Ms Ashton warned that the US will turn away from the EU unless it becomes more influential in Asia.

"Europe is no longer the main strategic preoccupation of US foreign policy ... The US has recognised the need for an increased engagement with Asia and there is a risk it will see the EU as a less relevant partner given our relative strategic weakness there," she explained.

The EU foreign policy chief's vision for future EU-China relations contains a human rights element. "The EU should continue to work for the release of individual political detainees through active diplomacy," the paper says.

But the vision is highly pragmatic, noting that China's top priorities are economic growth, internal stability and territorial integrity rather than democratic development, and admitting that the EU can do little to change Chinese society. "China will not match EU standards of human rights and rule of law for some time to come. Future convergence is best sought by concentrating on common ground ... We need to manage mutual expectations," Ms Ashton said.

The paper proposes the EU should "design a coherent communication strategy" to "explain" its view of China to the European public, with "facts about China [to] be mainstreamed at all levels of education." It also suggests holding trilateral EU-China-US meetings to help steer world events and speaks of a new "triangle" in EU diplomacy.

Ms Ashton's approach to China stands in contrast to her ideas on Russia.

The paper describes China boldly as a "major world power" while using lower-level diplomatic niceties on Russia as a "key player" which "matters enormously," but more in terms of neighbourhood issues than global affairs.

It suggests the multitude of high-level EU-Russia meetings - Russia is the only country with which the EU has two summits a year - should be "streamlined" in a way which avoids hurting Kremlin egos: "It is important to ensure any changes do not signal a downgrading of our relationship."

It also depicts Russia as rather needy in terms of EU technology for modernising its petro-economy. Unlike on China, it speaks of exploiting Russia's needs to push for democratic transformation. Referring to Moscow's ambition to lift EU visa requirements for example, the Ashton paper says "the EU can use considerable issue-based leverage" to first press for action on human rights in the Caucasus and on organised crime.

Ms Ashton notes that the Cold War heyday of EU-US activism in post-Soviet countries has passed. "Given its [the US] interest in limiting expenditure while maintaining global security ... for the EU this means an expectation that we can manage our own neighbourhood," she says.

Looking back to the EU-US summit in Lisbon last month, Ms Ashton recalled that Washington asked for EU help with energy security, cyber-security, crisis management and counter-terrorism.

She added that the White House still looks to Europe because it is rich and respectable: "The US values the EU as a partner that has means at its disposal and can provide a degree of international legitimacy." But she warned that internal EU muddles are damaging relations: "If we over-promise and under-deliver; if we prioritise process over substance or if we don't know what we want, the US will turn its attention elsewhere."

Singing from the same hymn sheet

In terms of questioning the "practical implications" of the China embargo, Ms Ashton is on the same page as Beijing's ambassador to the EU, Song Zhe. Mr Song told EUobserver earlier this week: "It doesn't make any sense to maintain the embargo ... With it [in place] we will develop our own arms even faster. So, at the end of the day, it is the [arms] companies in Europe that are losing out."

The embargo was imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. China says its armed forces killed 241 civilians but Nato intelligence says they killed 7,000 people.

Ms Ashton promised to put forward a similar review of relations with Brazil, India and South Africa in early 2011, as well as "possibly others." Back in September she told EU foreign ministers that Canada, Japan and Mexico are also EU "strategic partners" and that Egypt, Israel, Indonesia, Pakistan, Ukraine and South Korea may join the list in future.

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