Watching China in Europe - July 2020

9 min read
Welcome to Watching China in Europe, a new monthly update from GMF’s Asia Program.

Welcome to Watching China in Europe, a new monthly update from GMF’s Asia Program. Now more than ever, the transatlantic partners need clarity and cohesion when it comes to China policy. In this monthly newsletter, Noah Barkin—a veteran journalist based in Berlin and a senior visiting fellow at GMF—will provide his personal observations and analysis on the most pressing China-related developments and activities throughout Europe. Click here to receive the newsletter version.


Systemic Rival Revisited

Is China still a “systemic rival” for the EU? It depends who you ask. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen left no doubt that she supports the designation at her news conference following the recent EU-China summit. But top EU diplomat Josep Borrell has sent conflicting signals on the matter, calling the label “controversial.” Lately he has begun pointing out that Beijing is not a “systematic rival,” when no one ever said it was. While France’s Emmanuel Macron has used the term “rival" in relation to China, Germany’s Angela Merkel has never done so in public. Last year, according to German officials, she complained that the term was beginning to define the relationship with China and urged diplomats to put the focus back on areas of partnership with Beijing. Since then, the tone used by officials in Berlin when talking about China has softened. As one told me: “We do not oppose the use of systemic rival. But this term did not come from us and we don’t view it as binding.”

Indeed, the EU’s March 2019 strategic outlook on China—which described the country as a partner, economic competitor, and systemic rival—was never formally endorsed by European leaders at the summit that followed its publication (although officials say there was broad support for it behind closed doors). The document itself was the work of Martin Selmayr, the top adviser to Jean-Claude Juncker, who together with Helga Schmid and Gunnar Wiegand of the European External Action Service (ironically all three of them Germans) set out to produce a document with more teeth than traditional EU strategy documents. “We went through it line by line and at each stage we asked ourselves, can we make this a bit stronger, a bit clearer?” one official involved in the discussions told me. The document was then fast-tracked through the EU consultation process, producing the most robust foreign policy paper the bloc has produced in recent memory. The downside, however, is that few member states have chosen to make its language their own.

When a new Commission came in late last year, China saw an opportunity to push back. Last month, when Borrell held talks with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, he was grilled extensively about the EU’s use of the term and struggled to defend it, officials told me. Chinese officials have taken the same approach in their talks with EU member states. “China is not happy with this term. They raise it at every meeting and they are putting huge pressure on us to stop using it,” the German official told me. A first step towards a common EU position on China, a goal Merkel talks about often, would be for member states to own the term that they informally endorsed.

Grosse Anfrage - Grosse Sorge

In my May newsletter, I wrote that lawmakers from the Greens party had submitted an extensive list of questions (known as a “Grosse Anfrage”) to the German government about its China policy. I recently obtained a copy of the government’s 76-page response, which makes for interesting reading. At the outset, the government states that it sees “great potential” for Europe to deepen its cooperation with China. Without Beijing, it says, a wide range of regional and global challenges cannot be addressed. But delve into the body of the document and the tone changes quite a bit. Berlin, using creative linguistic variations, says that it is “worried”, “alarmed”, “greatly concerned”, and “extremely concerned” about a long list of issues related to China. According to its answers, these include: Taiwan, the South China Sea, the treatment of foreign NGOs and political dissidents, the detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang, China’s social credit system, its building of coal-fired power plants, and the financial and political dependencies created by the Belt and Road Initiative. On top of all this, the government acknowledges the following in its responses:

  • Chinese students in Germany are being steered by Chinese government officials to spy on fellow students and teachers
  • Chinese intelligence services are actively trying to recruit people of interest in Germany
  • State-backed Chinese cyber-attacks are widespread, and have included targets related to next-generation 5G networks
  • China is actively pressuring EU member states to support its positions with a “growing self-confidence”
  • China is doing “all it can” to secure the transfer of technologies and to strengthen its own industrial base through R&D collaborations

Beyond earnest assurances that it is raising these issues with its Chinese counterparts, however, the government provides very little detail on the steps it is taking to push back. For all the talk in Europe over the past year about the end of naivety on China, this document seems to be dripping with just that. I’m told that it will form the basis of a broad parliamentary debate on China—one lawmaker described it as a “reckoning” on Merkel’s China policy—when Bundestag members return from their summer holidays. As the list of concerns about China’s behaviour expands, Merkel faces growing pressure to explain her approach. She admitted herself in an interview with several European newspapers this week that talks on an EU-China investment agreement were going nowhere. Negotiations on climate are also stuck, as Beijing ramps up coal plant capacity to stimulate its economy. One senior EU official put it to me this way: “Berlin has overestimated Beijing’s appetite for a deal. The status quo is working for China. Why would they move?” Still, Merkel appears determined to hold her delayed Leipzig summit by the end of the year. One Bundestag official I spoke to said it was illusory to expect a policy “correction” from her given how much she has invested in the relationship with China. “Shifting now would be an admission that a cornerstone of her foreign policy has failed,” the official said. But in Brussels, officials are already thinking about Plan B.

Disinformation Debacle

Remember the embarrassing April leak that showed officials close to Josep Borrell had softened a report on Chinese disinformation after coming under pressure from Beijing?

I was told by three EU sources this week that the European External Action Service is close to wrapping up its investigation into the leak and that the preliminary results are not good for Borrell. He had publicly blamed a young EEAS analyst before the investigation had even begun. Word is that the investigation has not yielded any evidence that the analyst, Monika Richter, provided the details of an internal email exchange to the New York Times. That email exchange showed Richter warning her colleagues in strong terms against changing the report in response to Chinese pressure—a warning they ignored. Two months after the incident, Richter has decided to leave the EEAS for another job. I was told that another colleague who objected to Borrell’s handling of the episode has also submitted his resignation. Borrell has yet to explain his actions, despite receiving a formal request to do so from a member of the European Parliament.

Beyond the hit to morale at the small unit set up by the EU in 2015 to expose and push back against Russian disinformation, the broader question coming out of this incident is how the EEAS will handle Chinese disinformation going forward. I was told that following the departures, the unit will have four analysts focused on Russian disinformation, one focused on the MENA region and another on the Western Balkans. This spring, amid a wave of Chinese pandemic propaganda, another person was assigned to look at China. But as a Politico story detailed last week, there is no consensus on how explicitly the EU’s disinformation task force should be looking at China or whether it should devote more resources to that task. Senior staff have pushed for an “actor agnostic” approach that does not focus on individual countries—a strategy some see as naive. “The Chinese toolbox is far broader than Russia’s. It involves sophisticated foreign influence operations. We should be raising public awareness and educating people about the scope of the threat,” one EU official told me. Instead, EEAS leadership remains wary. It has a mandate from member states to look at Russia, but no formal backing to expand its work to include China. If they wanted to, European capitals could change that.

China Coalition Test

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, a new grouping of 128 lawmakers from 16 parliaments (and rising) which supports a more robust, values-based response to China’s Communist Party, held its first virtual meeting in late June—a challenge in and of itself because its members are stretched across the globe. This is a diverse grouping that includes American hawk Marco Rubio and British Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith, as well as members of the German Greens and Czech Pirate parties. One participant joined the first video conference with a digitally generated cat perched on top of his head. It’s not clear how many of his fellow IPAC members found that amusing. Human rights is one issue that unites this diverse group, and in one of IPAC’s first initiatives, it unveiled new research this week exposing the mass sterilisation of Uighur women in Xinjiang. The group is now promising a coordinated push for a United Nations investigation into the treatment of Uighur Muslims and other minorities in China, citing possible crimes against humanity or genocide. An initiative responding to China’s new security law for Hong Kong could be next.Luke de Pulford, who is coordinating IPAC’s work from London, told me that his aim was to “turbo-charge the back bencher,” providing lawmakers with a platform to influence the China policies of their governments, but also to give governments cover for a more robust approach. Already, the group faces a test of geographic balance. At the moment, IPAC counts 30 members from the U.K. and 25 from Canada, but just five from Germany and two from France. Another challenge is political. IPAC is explicitly non-partisan at a time of bitter partisanship in many countries. The group insists that national co-chairs be split between parties of the political right and left. It does not want members that are too far outside the mainstream and has had to politely decline expressions of interest from lawmakers on the fringes. “This will only work if we are taken seriously by governments,” de Pulford said. “We can’t allow ourselves to become a stick for politicians to beat China with.” Margarete Bause of the Greens party, a German co-chair, put it this way: "We want to show that there is a better way of interacting with the Chinese government than provocative attacks or appeasement". This may prove challenging in a world where the United States is digging itself in for a “great power competition.” But IPAC is an interesting early test of whether a broad values-based international coalition on China is possible—and whether it can influence government policy.