EU looks for united voice on China
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (R) sits facing her counterpart China's Foreign Minister Qin Gang (L) before talks at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin on May 9, 2023. (Photo by Michael Kappeler / POOL / AFP)
(AFP) - EU foreign ministers meet Friday to seek a common approach on lessening Europe's reliance on China and coaxing Beijing to take a tougher stance on Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Brussels is urging the European Union's 27 nations to get on the same page on how they deal with China as a more assertive Beijing flexes its influence on the world stage.
Speaking at the European Parliament this week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz admitted relations were getting tougher as "rivalry and competition on the side of China have certainly increased".
He backed calls for a "smart de-risking" by slashing Europe's dependence on China for key materials, but there is no appetite to sever all ties with the world's second-biggest economy.
"There is a desire to avoid confrontation with China, even if disputes are multiplying," said Elvire Fabry from the Jacques Delors Institute think tank.
Most pressing among those disagreements is China's refusal to condemn its close ally Russia and its invasion of Ukraine, or to press Moscow to stop its attack.
Brussels has enraged Beijing by proposing to restrict exports of sensitive tech to eight Chinese firms suspected of shipping it on to Russia.
On a European tour this week, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang warned Beijing would take the "necessary response" if the EU moved ahead with any sanctions.
In Berlin, Qin clashed over Ukraine with German counterpart Annalena Baerbock, who insisted China's proclaimed "neutrality means taking the side of the aggressor".
French foreign minister Catherine Colonna sought to soften the tone when she met Qin by insisting China had an important role to play for "global peace and stability" in efforts to mediate.
- Partner, competitor or rival? -
On a trip to China last month, French President Emmanuel Macron opened up EU fissures by saying Europe should not automatically follow US policy on Taiwan and should avoid "crises that aren't ours".
That stirred fierce criticism from some other European allies, which see the United States as a security guarantor against Russia.
Friday's meeting of foreign ministers in Stockholm is not meant to reach any concrete conclusions. But the hope is the talks can help nudge the EU towards greater unity in its ongoing efforts to grapple with the challenges posed by Beijing.
"The important thing is not to prevent China from becoming a world power, it is to manage how China will use this power," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Thursday.
Currently, the EU officially categorises China as simultaneously a partner, competitor and rival, and there is no plan to tear up that approach.
But EU officials say the emphasis could now move increasingly to managing the rivalry rather than working together.
The EU ministers will follow up their China discussion with a meeting on Saturday with counterparts from the Asia-Pacific region.
Beijing will once again be the elephant in the room as talks turn to security issues, including tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
But a senior EU official said the meeting would be above all about "building partnerships".
"There is no question of seeking an alignment between the participants against Russia during this meeting and we must maintain the status quo between China and Taiwan to avoid an escalation," he said.
© Agence France-Presse