4th Jun 2023

EU looks beyond Russia war to Chinese 'new world order'

  • 'Unlike Russia, China is a real systemic actor', EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell said (Photo: Jasperdo)
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Sanctions and hard talk can do little to stop China becoming ever more dangerous to Europe, an EU analysis has indicated.

China "is siding clearly with Russia" in its war on Ukraine, the EU foreign service said in a strategy paper being discussed by foreign ministers in Stockholm on Friday (12 April) and seen by EUobserver.

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  • Borrell: 'China's ambition is clearly to build a new world order with China in its centre, becoming the world's leading power, symbolically in 2049, the centenary of the creation of the People's Republic of China' (Photo: Council of the European Union)

"The EU needs to maintain clear messaging on the serious negative impact on EU-China relations in case of Chinese circumvention of sanctions and the provision of support for the Russian war effort," it added.

That support has already begun, according to draft new EU sanctions on the Ukraine war, also being discussed.

The proposed sanctions named eight Chinese firms said to be "involved in the circumvention of [EU] trade restrictions" in areas such as microelectronics for Russian missile-guidance systems.

The suggested EU ban on sales of dual-use tech to the Hong-Kong based firms would mark the second-ever European sanctions on Beijing.

The first-ever ones blacklisted four Chinese officials in 2021 for persecuting the Uighur minority in China — prompting China to blacklist MEPs and EU officials in response.

Meanwhile, Europe would also have to react robustly if China attacked Taiwan, the strategy paper said.

"The EU needs to be prepared for scenarios in which tensions increase significantly," it noted.

And dialogue with Beijing should continue only "so long as the irreparable is not committed," EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said in an accompanying letter, alluding to Taiwan.

But for all that, Borrell's research also showed EU sanctions would have far less effect on China than on Russia, which now faces far-reaching Western trade embargoes and more than 1,600 EU-blacklisted people and entities.

"The China issue is much more complex than the Russia issue. Unlike Russia, China is a real systemic actor," his letter warned.

"A Russian defeat in Ukraine will not derail China's trajectory. China will manage to take geopolitical advantage of it," he added, making the Ukraine war look like a sideshow to larger and more long-term developments on the world stage.

"China's trajectory can be described as the end of the 'reform and opening' period ... key trends are more control domestically, more party-state steering in the economy, and a more assertive power projection combined with global leadership ambitions," the strategy paper said.

"China's ambition is clearly to build a new world order with China in its centre, becoming the world's leading power, symbolically in 2049, the centenary of the creation of the People's Republic of China," Borrell's letter added.

It was already a "key player" in Afghanistan, the South China Sea, and the Middle East, he said.

In the Middle East, it was "edging out the 'spent-force' that is the US" by "brokering a diplomatic agreement on the normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran", his strategy paper noted.

EU countries have struggled to decouple themselves from dependence on Russian gas and oil in the past year.

The abyss

But if China and the EU ever became locked in a sanctions war of the same type, then the impact on Europe would be exponentially bigger, Borrell's study indicated.

China's "systemic" importance to Europe's economy was of a different order, he said.

The EU's trade deficit with China was already "abyssal" and grew by 58 percent to €396bn last year, he added.

"Critical dependencies" on China "leave us vulnerable to weaponisation and coercion" in high-tech areas such as renewable-energy and communication technologies, vaccines, and raw materials, his report said.

China's military was becoming sanctions-proof due to a "high-intensity self-reliance campaign," it said.

And Europe faced fierce Chinese competition "in domains of unprecedented sensitivity including certain semiconductors, quantum computing, space technologies, Artificial Intelligence, biotechnologies," it also said.

Friday's Stockholm talks come amid a near-collapse in US-China relations.

There was "an absence of communication at political level since the balloon incident", the EU paper noted, referring to a Chinese spy balloon shot down by the US in February.

The talks also come amid an EU split on China between staunch US allies, such as Lithuania and Poland, and the more China-friendly France.

For his part, French president Emmanuel Macron warned against the EU becoming a US "vassal" in its confrontation with China when he visited Beijing last month.

And while Borrell called for a "clear-eyed" EU policy on China's "systemic rivalry", he also echoed the French position.

"Coordination with the United States will remain essential. However, the EU should not subscribe to an idea of a zero-sum game whereby there can only be one winner, in a binary contest between the US and China," his strategy paper said.

The vast majority of China trade was "thriving, non-risky", it said.

And even though Beijing was listening less and less to Europe on issues such as human rights and international law, "this must not deter the EU from maintaining open channels of communication and seeking constructive cooperation," the report said.

"The EU and its member states should remain firm but not confrontational," it said.


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