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International relations

China dispatches top diplomatic duo to Europe in charm offensive

Rare move is made to prevent ties from fraying, but human rights concerns remain

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide greet each other with an elbow bump in Oslo on Aug. 27.   © NTB Scanpix via Reuters

BEIJING -- China's two highest-ranking foreign affairs officials are making back-to-back visits to Europe, an unusual move that underscores Beijing's desire to stay on good terms with the Continent as relations with Washington deteriorate.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi kicked off a tour Aug. 25, visiting Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, France and Germany as of Tuesday. Meanwhile, Politburo member Yang Jiechi, China's top diplomat, will stop in Spain and Greece by Friday after visiting Myanmar on Tuesday.

The two men typically do not visit the same region around the same time, but the U.S. has positioned China as a strategic competitor, and Beijing wants to maintain relations with Europe. Wang told French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday that China is Europe's partner, not a rival.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Eastern Europe, which historically has deep ties to China, in August to call on countries to shut out products from Huawei Technologies and other Chinese companies from their communications networks. Later that month, Yang visited South Korea and arranged a trip there by Chinese President Xi Jinping. After making diplomatic overtures in Asia, Beijing is turning its sights to Europe.

But whether China's efforts succeeded remains to be seen, because Europe is interested in such human rights issues as the Chinese clampdown on Hong Kong through a new national security law and the treatment of Uighur Muslims in the mainland's Xinjiang region.

Meeting with Wang, Macron expressed deep concern about human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, according to the French presidential office. Hong Kong media have reported that Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok expressed concern over the Hong Kong security law and the delay of Hong Kong's legislative elections originally scheduled for September.

Macron told reporters that France was not excluding Huawei or any other company from its next-generation 5G wireless network but that his strategy was based on European sovereignty, suggesting that European manufacturers will receive precedence.

For its part, Beijing has not budged on the Hong Kong and Xinjiang issues. Wang repeated the argument that foreign countries have no right to intervene in China's internal matters. Asked in Norway how China would react if the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong won the Nobel Peace Prize, Wang replied that he did not want to see the prize politicized.

Relations between China and Norway cooled after the Norwegian Nobel Committee named then-imprisoned Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo, since deceased, as the peace prize winner for 2010. Wang's remark, which was seen as a warning, could prompt a backlash from the European country.

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