China is currently front and centre of foreign-policy discussions within the European Union and between the EU and the USA. Despite the postponement of September’s EU-China Summit in Leipzig, Germany signalled that China remains a priority under Berlin’s rotating presidency of the EU. In a draft of a strategy paper for its six months at the helm of the EU, Germany said China would have to show more “reciprocity” – presumably in areas like market access – and the EU better pursue its “interests and values” – bold words after China’s moves to quell the protests in Hong Kong.
Germany’s move followed a High-Level EU-China Strategic Dialogue, which took place on 9 June and during which – according to EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell – Brussels and Beijing made progress on the Agenda 2025, which is meant to codify strategic cooperation between the EU and China. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel will meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for an online summit on Monday, 22 June.
EU Foreign Ministers met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by video on 15 June. China and its growing assertiveness were high on the agenda. Borrell suggested the EU and US launch a “distinct, bilateral dialogue focussing on China.” In parallel, the EU made progress on the action plan set out in the 2019 strategic outlook on EU-China relations. It announced new steps to fight disinformation and to address the distortive effects of foreign subsidies on the single market, which will, for example, stop Chinese companies operating in third countries from circumventing EU duties on Chinese goods.
The EU is expanding its toolbox to address the challenges posed by China in a number of policy areas, following through on some of the action points set out in the March 2019 strategic outlook. These developments should be seen in the context of a reassessment of EU-China relations that became clearer in spring 2019 but have intensified with the Covid-19 pandemic over the last few months. Nonetheless, European leaders have been unwilling to let differences derail diplomatic relations with China, and so far, the EU’s sharpening of its approach – especially to trade – has not expanded to equally concrete proposals to deal with growing political tensions.
MERICS analysis: With the cracks in transatlantic relations growing and tensions between Washington and Beijing rising, Europe is looking to stake out its own China policy. It is unlikely that the EU will follow the more antagonistic approach of the US – only last week, Borrell published a post in which he put forward the idea of a “Sinatra Doctrine” with which Europe could find its own way. Despite this signal that the EU won’t pick sides as tensions between Washington and Beijing escalate, the idea of a transatlantic dialogue on China would help Europe and US understand each other’s views and fine tune approaches in areas where they have similar interests – the need for structural economic reforms in China, the possibility of bringing together the EU’s connectivity strategy and the US Blue Dot Network as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, to name but two, says MERICS expert Lucrezia Poggetti.
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