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Opinion

China is losing the battle for Europe's hearts and minds

Foreign Minister Wang Yi's eight-day European charm offensive was a failure

| China
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas welcomes Wang Yi before a meeting in Berlin on Sep. 1: Beijing must realize that Europe can't be so easily bought.   © Reuters

Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Just as the Soviet bloc faced off against the U.S. across the Iron Curtain, Europe will be a major theater of geopolitical conflict in the new Cold War unfolding between the U.S. and China.

While in geographic terms the political conflict between the U.S. and China will remain confined to East and Southeast Asia, Europe will be the battleground for economic, technological, and diplomatic advantage.

With the U.S.-China economic decoupling in full swing, Europe will be the primary conduit of China's trade, investment and technological transfers to the advanced capitalist economies.

China's second-largest trading partner after ASEAN -- the EU was China's largest trading partner in 2019 when two-way trade in goods between China and the EU totaled more than $600 billion -- Europe will also become China's most important source of technology transfer in the coming decades as the full effects of U.S. restrictions on such transfers to China sink in.

Diplomatically, the EU will also have a decisive influence on critical issues such as human rights, reform of international institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization, and Taiwan's future status. That explains why China recently sent its foreign minister Wang Yi on an 8-day tour of five European countries which are Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, France, and Germany.

The immediate purpose of the visit was to gauge these countries' ties with China in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic -- for which China's initial poor response is widely blamed -- as well as Beijing's imposition of a draconian security law in Hong Kong, and the rapid escalation of tensions with the U.S.

If news reports are any guide, then Wang's trip was a failure, with Xi Jinping's envoy getting a polite but overwhelmingly cool reception. In Berlin, Wang was admonished by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas for making threats against the speaker of the Czech senate who had visited Taiwan in defiance of Beijing's warnings. Worse still, the day after Wang left Berlin, Germany issued a new Indo-Pacific strategy. Centered on the promotion of the rule of law and open markets, the policy signals a major shift away from its previous strategy of prioritizing relations with China.

It is impossible to know what Wang told his political masters after his return to Beijing. But as they deliberate a long-term strategy of how to make sure Brussels doesn't take sides in China's battle for supremacy with Washington, they must realize that Europe can't be so easily bought.

Judging by Europe's long-standing security and economic ties and ideological affinity with the U.S., the EU is far more likely to side with the U.S. than sit on the sidelines in the new Cold War. That means China will have to pay dearly for the EU's strategic neutrality.

China's leaders may assume that the EU's enormous economic interests in China will be enough to ensure its neutrality. But they should think twice, because an important lesson from the U.S.-China decoupling is that, when forced to choose, capitalist democracies will put security and ideological values above profits. It will take more than the lure of China's enormous market to keep European democracies on the fence.

To be sure, deep commercial ties can work in China's favor, but the EU, like the U.S., has legitimate and profound concerns about China's economic policies and practices. If Beijing fails to respond with concessions and domestic reform, the commercial foundations on which the EU-China relationship is built will erode as quickly as the relationship between Beijing and Washington. This means Beijing should act quickly to conclude a bilateral investment treaty with the EU, open up more domestic sectors to European companies, and curtail subsidies to its state-owned enterprises.

Besides economic concessions, China should also work more actively with the EU on climate change. With the Trump administration's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, the EU has become the world's standard-bearer on reducing carbon emissions. China can commit to more ambitious reduction targets, as well as cooperate more on helping to achieve the goals set in the Paris accord. If there is one thing that makes European countries hesitant to side with their traditional ally, the U.S., it is the climate change, where the U.S. is seen as a far bigger threat than China.

Smoke rises next to an unauthorized steel factory in Inner Mongolia, pictured in November 2016: China should work more actively with the EU on climate change.   © Getty Images

The most difficult challenge facing China in securing European neutrality is human rights. Although the EU does not perceive the threat of growing Chinese military power in the same way as the U.S., Brussels feels far more strongly about China's massive incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang, its imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong, and other recent examples of escalating of political repression. It will be politically inconceivable for EU countries to maintain strategic neutrality if the Chinese government's iron-fisted treatment of its own citizens continues in violation of its international commitments.

The choice before Beijing is stark. Unless it is prepared to concede Europe to the U.S., it will have to make the necessary -- and painful -- concessions that will likely clash with President Xi Jinping's domestic and international agendas.

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