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5th Jul 2020

US warns EU on making friends with China's 'dictator'

  • US ambassador called Chinese president Xi Jinping (c) a "dictator" (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The EU would be abandoning its values if it opted for a deeper partnership with China's "dictatorship", just because it did not get along with US president Donald Trump, the American ambassador to the EU has said.

"The people of China are a wonderful people and I have nothing but respect for them, but general secretary Xi is a dictator," Ronald Gidwitz, the US envoy, told press in Brussels on Monday (22 June), referring to Chinese president Xi Jinping.

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  • Ronald Gidwitz (c) with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo (r) (Photo: state.gov)

Gidwitz listed China together with Iran, North Korea, and Russia as one of the principal "malign actors" on the world stage.

"If you believe the European Union is well served to be in partnership with a dictator, that's your choice to make," he said.

"[But] that's a false choice - that you [the EU] have to make a decision between the US and China. The real question is do you favour rule of law, do you favour democratic institutions, do you favour human rights? And if you do, the choice is not do you favour the US, it's do you join us to encourage those dictatorships to change?", Gidwitz said.

"Can the EU - a collection of democracies, based on freedom, based on multiculturalism, based on rule of law - can you partner with someone who gives you empty promises, who is not transparent, who completely disregards human rights?", he added.

The US envoy spoke to press the same day that top EU officials held a video-summit with Xi and with Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang.

And the values that Gidwitz spoke of divided the two sides.

"We expressed our great concerns about the proposed national security law for Hong Kong," EU Council president Charles Michel told press in Brussels afterward, referring to Xi's recent crackdown on Hong Kong democracy.

"The relationship between the EU and China is simultaneously one of the most strategically important and one of the most challenging that we have," European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said.

The EU officials did not mention China's persecution of its Uighur ethnic minority - another divisive point.

But von der Leyen also warned of "very negative consequences if it [China] goes forward with imposing this law [on Hong Kong]".

And she complained about Chinese cyberattacks in the EU and its coronavirus disinformation campaign.

"We've seen attacks … on computer systems, on hospitals, and we know the origin [China] of the cyberattacks," she said.

"We pointed out clearly that this [disinformation] cannot be tolerated," she noted.

"Progress is needed in many areas to rebalance this relationship," Michel added, referring to lack of access for EU firms to China's domestic market.

Empty promise

That was one of the "empty promises" that Gidwitz had referred to, after Li, the Chinese prime minister, signed a statement pledging "non-discriminatory market access" for European companies at the previous EU-China summit last April.

And for its part, China pushed back against the EU's call, in Gidwitz' words, "to encourage [the Chinese] dictatorship to change".

Neither Xi nor Li gave a press conference.

But Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Lutong told reporters the same day, according to the AFP news agency: "We oppose any foreign interference in this matter [Hong Kong]".

The EU-China summit came amid growing talk of a new US-China Cold War, as well as speculation that Europe would have to pick sides.

Going back to EU-US relations, Gidwitz, the American ambassador, admitted that Trump was a difficult partner.

"Speaking as a Republican ... I mean, we [the EU and US] have survived many presidents," he noted, referring to his and Trump's right-wing Republican Party.

"But I don't think it's really a question though of how does one survive four more years of Donald Trump," Gidwitz said, ahead of upcoming US elections.

The number of irritants in transatlantic relations has also multiplied under Trump - on foreign policy, trade, and climate, as well as over Trump's open backing for Brexit and his spiteful remarks about EU leaders, such as German chancellor Angela Merkel.

But Gidwitz said: "My view is that Donald Trump has made significant improvements in the relationship in many ways".

He singled out the way Trump had pushed Nato allies to spend more on defence as his main achievement.

'Broken' partnership

"You had a partnership where partners were not carrying their load," Gidwitz said.

"What Donald Trump did ... was to raise the question: 'Are you really or are you not a partner of the United States?'," Gidwitz noted.

"And I think the answer is absolutely: 'Yes, the Europeans now, by and large, not entirely, but to a large measure have come to the conclusion: 'Yes. Nato is important and ... [spending] commitments should be kept," he added.

"If it's a broken partnership, let's call it what it is ... you [EUobserver] infer that everything was smooth under the previous administration [of US president Barack Obama], when in fact Donald Trump inherited a bunch of broken partnerships," Gidwitz said.

"That has been ... the undercurrent of this administration: When you have a relationship, you either fulfil it, or get out of it," he added.

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