Europe should rethink China policy after party congress, Ukraine stance

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China has become an even bigger player in world affairs in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s weakening, but not necessarily to its advantage, a Warsaw-based analyst said.

The two major events that “shaped or reshaped Europe’s attitude towards China” are the war in Ukraine and China’s response to it, and the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress and its results, Ireneusz Bil , president of the Warsaw-based Amicus Europae Foundation, said in a telephone interview with VOA. The foundation was established by former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski.

While attitudes towards Beijing have hardened due to its stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the latest policy statements and composition of the new leadership at the Chinese Party Congress give the EU yet another reason to recalibrate its old approach largely welcoming,” said Bil.

Under these circumstances, China’s increased role in international affairs and a potentially expanded footprint in Europe, including Central and Eastern Europe, will be accompanied by increased control and greater “vigilance”, according to the analyst.

Europe will be more aware of the consequences of China’s technology exchanges and investments than it was before, more vigilant in the selection process, Mr.

Now people gon’ watch “who’s behind [Chinese investments]what kind of technology they will have access to, what kind of infrastructure they will have access to, what security risks are behind it,” Bil said.

Given these developments, the German government‘s recent decision to send a chancellor-led delegation to Beijing and allow a Chinese state-owned company to participate in the port of Hamburg is viewed with strong reservations in Poland and the most other Central and Eastern European countries, Bil told VOA.

Bil described Berlin’s choice as “a unilateral decision to move so quickly after the 20th Party Congress” that “could be seen as support for the rise of authoritarianism in China.”

“It’s not welcomed in Poland, and I think in the majority of the EU – as I said, here Germany is seen as underperforming compared to Russia, so now their efforts to build some sort of new relationship with China are seen as not in the interest of the whole of the European Union,” he said.

Bil added that whether this action is in Germany’s own interest is also debatable, judging by the opposition put forward by German security agencies, among other groups.

Germany and France – the largest countries in the EU – “have neglected our [most Central and Eastern European countries] interest and our opinions towards Russia, you can imagine that we are now seeing a ‘mirror effect’ in their relations with China,” he said. “This has led to a crisis of confidence towards Germany – and their understanding of the change in [the] geostrategic map.

Central to Germany’s and the EU’s relationship with China is the extent to which each country, and the EU as a whole, depends on China for its economic well-being. At this week’s policy roundtable organized by the European Parliament’s Research Service in Brussels, two analysts said dependency was “exaggerated”.

Jacob Kirkegaard is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund (GMF) in Brussels and a nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) in Washington, D.C. He noted at the event on Thursday that the Ukraine crisis has led European nations to look carefully at the potential consequences of a fallout with China, should Beijing take similar action against Taiwan, as Russia did against Ukraine.

“China is a bigger economy, so sanctioning China over a military invasion of Taiwan is going to be more important than sanctioning Russia, there’s no question about that,” Kirkegaard said.

While there is no doubt a very large contingent “of European industrial interests who will scream it’s going to be a disaster”, the reality is, he said, “as we have seen during the pandemic , as we’ve seen now with the gas dependency on Russia, “the global supply chain has a lot more flexibility,” and the real long-term dependencies on China will turn out to be much lower than we think,” said Kirkegaard.

Ulrich Jochheim, a political analyst in the external policy unit of the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) who previously worked as economic officer for Germany and China at the European Commission, agrees.

“Our [German] exports to China are less than 10%”, relatively insignificant compared to “a figure of 30% – more or less – for Australia, and 42% in the case of Taiwan”, he pointed out during of Thursday’s policy roundtable.

Earlier this month, the EU identified China as a “tough competitor” at its meeting of foreign ministers, known as the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC).

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky described the meeting as a platform for “very good and very consensual internal deliberations between EU foreign ministers” on EU-China relations.

“There is no formal or agreed public outcome of this debate and we do not comment on the details of internal debates,” he wrote, in response to VOA’s request for comment. “As usual, High Representative Josep Borrell as Chairman commented publicly after the meeting and he indeed spoke of ‘a tough, increasingly tough competitor and a systemic rival’.

Lipavsky continued: “I have only one thing to add: there is a lucid assessment of China and the recognition that the EU has the greatest leverage, when acting in unity both at inside and outside with like-minded partners. As for Czechia, we enjoyed the debate and will support its continuation.”

The Czech Republic currently holds the EU Presidency.

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