How far will EU follow the US in its ideological rivalry with China in 2022?
‘Human rights,’ ‘democracy’ among potential frictions, risking eroding cooperation base
Published: Dec 14, 2021 10:36 PM
Flags of the European Union fly outside the EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, May 21, 2021. Photo: Xinhua

Flags of the European Union fly outside the EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, May 21, 2021. Photo: Xinhua

The European Union (EU) has hesitated to follow the US suit, and decided at the foreign ministers' meeting on Monday it will refrain from making a joint decision to not send government officials to the Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. 

Observers said the decision is emblematic of the bloc's difficult struggle to find a path out of the China-US rivalry, even though the EU is inclined to follow the US in playing the "ideology cards."

A delegation of French lawmakers will reportedly visit the island of Taiwan amid Europe's escalating interactions with the secessionist Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authority in the island. The just-concluded G7 summit in Liverpool, UK, attempted to pin the label of "economic coercion" on China as the West is unnerved by China's rise. EU accusations of human rights violations in China's Xinjiang and Hong Kong regions have led to bills and sanctions. 

The increasing complexities in China-EU relations prompted observers to ask to what extent the bloc will follow the US in its containing of China under the banner of ideology in 2022. 

The EU has been seeking a joint stance on the attendance of government officials at the Beijing Winter Games, and EU leaders are set to debate the issue on Thursday, which was brought to the table by France, president of the EU Council in 2022, and the Netherlands.  

French President Emmanuel Macron said earlier that France will not join the US and its allies in a "diplomatic boycott." French Education and Sports Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer warned against politicizing sports but also said the country will continue to condemn China on the so-called human rights violations, France24 reported. 

The mixed attitudes of France reflect the EU's careful yet difficult handling of the China-EU relations, observers said on Tuesday, predicting that China-EU relations will see another complicated year full of uncertainties in 2022 amid the China-US rivalry. 

The Biden administration has continued the Trump administration's strategic goal of containing China, but with a different method - doing it multilaterally and uniting traditional transatlantic allies as well as non-Western countries like Japan to form alliances based on values, Zhao Junjie, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' (CASS) Institute of European Studies, told the Global Times on Tuesday. 

The "summit for democracy" convened by US President Joe Biden is one among many examples.  

Wrapping up EU moves in the past year, including remarks criticizing China's policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang regions, sanctions under the excuse of "human rights," some countries' provocative interactions with the island of Taiwan and louder voices in an attempt to hijack the entire EU on this issue, Zhao believes these signals prove the EU has answered the US' bugle call and therefore ideological frictions between the EU and China may increase in 2022. 

Sun Keqin, a research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) in Beijing, see differences in the US and EU's China strategy despite their proximity in values. 

The US uses ideology and values as a tool and weapon to form value-centered cliques to besiege China, which it regards as an all-round rival, and to assert US hegemonic status, Sun told the Global Times on Tuesday.

The EU treats China threefold as a partner, a competitor and a rival in political systems, which determined there are multiple facets in EU's China policies in the background of "predictable more frequent West-launched ideological attacks against China," Sun said. 

Potential frictions 

In addition to the EU's internal negotiations on whether to send government officials to the Beijing 2022 Games, the Taiwan question has become a point of contention in the China-EU relations recently due to some countries' instigation. 

After Lithuania's provocations over the island of Taiwan which prompted China to downgrade diplomatic relations with it, the tiny Baltic country has sought EU protection with the support of some anti-China politicians. The EU Commission has put forward an "anti-coercion instrument" in response.  

Traditionally the EU had little interest in getting involved in the cross-Taiwan Straits topics, but the latest developments indicate the US has successfully cultivated agent states to hijack Europe to play the "Taiwan card" at Washington's will.

Experts warned that the US is trying to mold the island of Taiwan into a "democratic model" by inviting the island to international organizations and giving it platform at the just-concluded "summit for democracy." With those tactics to enlarge Taiwan's "international presence," the US could engage the EU to treat Taiwan island as an "ideological ally." 

For the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea, while the US flexes its muscles and cares most about its hegemonic status, the EU has kept "freedom of navigation" and security of supply chains in mind, and appears reluctant to invest too many resources in it, said Sun, the expert from CICIR. 

Since the Communist Party of China will convene its 20th National Congress in the second half of 2022, the US will definitely put China's system under close scrutiny and will miss no chance to smear its path, and it remains to be seen to what extent the EU will follow, Sun said. 

Experts agreed that topics concerning human rights in China's Hong Kong and Xinjiang regions are areas where the US and EU share the largest consensus.

Zhao from CASS said that in addition to EU remarks condemning China and bills, which are "symbolic fists," it is noteworthy that the bloc is adding "solid punches" and bundling ideology with economic and trade relations, citing sanctions over Xinjiang cotton as an example. 

General trend

Despite an investment pact pending under the shadow of political uncertainties, China-EU trade volume in the first 10 months of 2021 reached $670.4 billion, surpassing the total for 2020, when COVID-19 swept across the world, according to the Chinese Mission to the EU. 

Dubbing bilateral relations as "cold politics, hot economics" in the past year, Zhao believes the trade performance is the most obvious indicator for the resilience of China-EU relations, and the EU also believes politics is not the only benchmark to evaluate bilateral ties and will try hard to maintain autonomy in diplomacy. 

Sun pointed out that the EU and China have a range of areas to enhance cooperation including fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recovery, dealing with climate change and green economy. The two sides also have large shared interests in global governance and close cultural and personnel exchanges, which ensure bilateral relations do not go to extremes. 

Some negative elements, like US' client states and the European Parliament, will narrow the buffer zone the EU has but will not be able to make sudden changes in steering the bloc's China policy, the expert said. 

He Zhigao, also a research fellow with CASS, noted that as the EU is not an ironclad monolithic bloc, each member country has different priorities and concerns. Positioning China as a "partner, competitor and rival" demonstrates the complexity of EU policies toward China, the expert said. 

But some observers warned frictions on ideology and values, if continuing to expand and escalate, will ultimately erode the cooperation foundation and jeopardize the most important stabilizer of China-EU relations. 

At the just-concluded G7 foreign and development ministers' summit, a joint statement called China a "economic coercer," signaling the danger of demonizing China in economics and trade sectors amid an ideological warfare. 

As part of the major power politics, the China-EU relations will also be affected by how Russia's relations with the US and the EU develop in 2022, observers said, noting the quadrilateral dynamics will have an impact on EU's positioning of China. 

Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a "candid and tough-toned" meeting last week, the fourth of its kind in 2021, without yielding meaningful results.  The EU and Russia, meanwhile, are locked in fierce conflicts on issues of Ukraine and Belarus.