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International relations

China gives Europe's left and right wings something to agree on

Video summit reflects emerging consensus on need for EU to get tough

Chinese President Xi Jinping hosts French President Emmanuel Macron in 2018: Macron has since declared that the time of "European naivete" toward Beijing is over.   © Reuters

PRAGUE -- Over the past year, political pundits in the U.S. have argued that a tougher foreign policy on China is the only issue uniting the country's increasingly disparate Republican and Democratic parties. In Europe, too, there are signs of a growing consensus that the halcyon "golden age" of relations with China is over, and that governments must somehow stand up to Beijing.

The overall direction in Europe "is towards a tougher line on China, and you will see that on the political left and right," said Noah Barkin, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.

There is still plenty of disagreement over what, exactly, tougher policy should look like. But since the European Union last year branded China a "systemic rival," French President Emmanuel Macron claimed that the "time of European naivete" was over, and the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world, there has been a clear shift in sentiment across the political spectrum.

That shift was evident in the European Union's video summit with China on Monday. While Chinese state media reported that President Xi Jinping stressed there was no fundamental conflict between the two sides, top EU officials painted a different picture.

"We have to recognize that we do not share the same values, political systems, or approach to multilateralism," European Council President Charles Michel said in a statement, while also acknowledging the importance of cooperation. "We will engage in a clear-eyed and confident way, robustly defending EU interests and standing firm on our values."

From France and Germany to Italy and beyond, analysts say attitudes are changing.

European Council President Charles Michel discusses the virtual summit with China in Brussels on June 22.   © Reuters

The China issue had been mostly absent from France's mainstream political debate for much of the last decade, according to John Seaman, a research fellow at the French Institute of International Relations' Center for Asian Studies. But now, he said, there is "a fairly broad political consensus that the more contentious issues must be dealt with in the relationship with China," though he added that Paris still prefers to avoid doing so in an "overtly public and politicized manner."

In Italy, opposition parties and the center-left Democratic Party, part of the governing coalition, are advocating a firmer approach to Beijing. In the Netherlands, the four-party ruling coalition called for reducing the country's dependence on China in a policy paper published last year.

And in the post-Brexit U.K., the governing Conservative Party recently U-turned from being the loudest proponent of closer ties with Beijing to announcing a major "reset" in relations. Meanwhile, the opposition Labour Party is adopting "a visibly hard line on China" that is pressuring the Conservatives further down this road, observed Peter Harris, assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University.

Even Europe's right-wing populist parties -- Marine Le Pen's National Rally party in France, and Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom, the largest opposition party in the Netherlands -- have begun to speak out more critically on China after mostly avoiding the subject in the past, analysts note.

The motivations, of course, vary. Center-left parties have typically focused on China's human rights record, especially its treatment of the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, while the pro-business center-right parties have admonished Beijing for not fulfilling promises to open up Chinese markets to European companies and level the playing field.

Demonstrators in Paris highlight China's treatment of its Uighur Muslim population in March 2019. While the center-left typically focuses on human rights, the center-right laments China's market restrictions.   © Reuters

COVID-19 has only stirred more suspicion and resentment -- over China's initial handling of the outbreak, to mixed reviews of its "mask diplomacy," to its criticism of Europe's struggle to contain the virus. All this has coincided with Beijing's rush to tighten control of Hong Kong with national security legislation, prompting the EU to reiterate "grave concerns" during Monday's meeting.

The German Marshall Fund's Barkin suggested the coronavirus has altered the diplomatic dynamics. "The pandemic has hardened existing positions in Germany, and in Europe more broadly," he said.

Berlin has long appeared reluctant to antagonize China. But Barkin said that what was once a cross-partisan consensus that "engaging with China was a good thing" for the economy has broken down in recent years, due to a change of heart among center-left parties, mainly the Greens and Social Democrats.

To an extent, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has adopted a stronger tone as well.

Earlier this month, German officials postponed a planned special summit between European leaders and Xi, scheduled to be held in Leipzig in September. Ostensibly, this was due to travel concerns during the pandemic, but pundits suspected it was because of a breakdown in negotiations between Brussels and Beijing over a planned investment pact.

"A bad deal is not an option," Michael Clauss, Germany's top envoy to the European Union, told the South China Morning Post after the cancellation.

But even if there is widespread agreement that Europe should get tougher on China, the consensus breaks down when the question turns to how to go about it.

Lucrezia Poggetti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, said that Italy's left and right wings have similar assessments of Beijing's actions, but that "the main divisions of thought are over the approach to be adopted in response to China's rise and its increasing assertiveness." Within the governing Five Star Movement -- a populist party that has taken a largely pro-Beijing position -- he said there is "not a clear, united stance on China within the movement itself."

In France, Seaman at the French Institute of International Relations said disagreements over how forcefully to deal with Beijing "don't seem to run along party lines, or at least not between the major parties."

Instead, he said, they "are rather differences that can be seen within the parties themselves."

The same goes for the U.K., where analysts see the Conservative Party cleaving between its hawkish and dovish extremes, just as the party was torn over Brexit. In Germany, Merkel's Christian Democrats face a similar chasm.

Several other issues must also be factored in. One is the deep distrust among European leaders over U.S. President Donald Trump, who has severely weakened trans-Atlantic relations.

Macron on June 14 doubled down on China but said a firmer stance versus the U.S. was also in order. The French president called for a "new chapter in European history," in which the Continent will be "independent" and "able to stand up against China, against the United States, against the disorder we are currently witnessing."

Another issue is the economic hardship brought on by the coronavirus.

Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, this month warned of an "unprecedented crisis," with EU-wide gross domestic product expected to contract by as much as 8.4% in 2020. This is likely to make governing parties more apprehensive about taking a hawkish line on China, lest Beijing respond with trade sanctions and cuts to investment.

Indeed, this month, China threatened to withdraw funding for nuclear power and other infrastructure in the U.K. if London seeks alternative 5G technology to Huawei's over security fears.

As such, the main dividing line among European political parties over China is not between left and right, but between parties in office and those in opposition.

This explains Germany's lukewarm stance, as Merkel's Christian Democrat-led governing coalition is "still very much driven by economic interests," Barkin said.

Jojje Olsson, a Swedish journalist based in Taiwan, noted that in Sweden the main opposition party, the Moderates, frequently critiques the government for being too weak on China and for putting trade above human rights and democracy.

"But as we all know," Olsson added, "it's easy to engage in this rhetoric while in opposition, but something completely different to turn it into actual policy."

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