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Watching China in Europe - May 2021

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

Welcome to Watching China in Europe, a 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 and the WCIE podcast series, Noah Barkin—a veteran journalist, managing editor at Rhodium Group and a senior visiting fellow at GMF—provides his personal observations and analysis on the most pressing China-related developments and activities throughout Europe.

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Merkel, Macron, and Xi

Two years ago, when President Emmanuel Macron invited Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to Paris for a meeting with visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping, it was greeted with unease in Berlin. Merkel accepted, but behind the scenes German diplomats grumbled about Macron’s insistence on an “exclusive” format that they feared would alienate other EU states. “We have always preferred an inclusive approach,” a German official told me at the time. In recent months, however, Germany’s position appears to have shifted 180 degrees. Last December, Merkel invited Macron to participate in the videoconference with Xi that gave the EU’s formal seal of approval to the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). We saw it again when Merkel and Macron held a surprise call with Xi last month to plot climate strategy—just a week before President Joe Biden’s Earth Day summit. And this summer, pandemic permitting, we will see the first joint trip to Beijing by a German and French leader, officials in Berlin and Paris confirmed to me. It would be Merkel’s 13th and final trip to China as chancellor—a farewell visit and a handover of sorts to Macron, who will be entrusted with keeping the EU’s relationship with China on track when the Merkel era ends. “It’s positive when Berlin and Paris show the way forward on China,” the same official who had criticized the Franco-German format two years ago told me recently. Other EU member states, the official said, would just have to accept that Berlin and Paris were taking the lead—and so would the new Biden administration. “The Americans don’t have a monopoly on talks with China. They will just have to get used to this,” the official said. A senior French diplomat put it more bluntly: “We refuse to be swept up in the American crusade against China. This is what Paris and Berlin fear most, and you are seeing both capitals push back against that narrative. A joint trip will send a strong message.”

"A No To Biden"

It sure will—especially if it happens before either Merkel or Macron travel to Washington for a first White House meeting with Biden. No such trips are planned before the G7 summit in Cornwall on June 11-13, I was told. That is partly due to the pandemic. But Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has already passed through Washington and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in will become the second foreign leader to visit later this month. If the United States is back, as Biden likes to proclaim, Berlin and Paris do not seem ready to acknowledge it. And this has major implications for the new administration’s core foreign policy goal—building a united front with allies to push back against China. As my GMF colleague Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff spelled out last week in a timely article, titled “Joe Biden’s 100 Days of Solitude”, Merkel’s failure to engage with Biden has been especially jarring. One ambassador from a country of the proposed D10 group put it to me this way: “We saw Biden give Europe a pitch-perfect message on China at the Munich Security Conference. There should have been a reaction by now. My concern is that we’ve seen the reaction. It’s all defensive. It is essentially a no to Biden.” In the White House, this view is also taking hold. The feeling, according to members of the Biden team, is that they have gone out of their way to reach out to Europe. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made two trips to Brussels, reassuring his hosts that the new administration will not force Europe to choose between the United States and China. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Germany last month and pledged to station 500 additional U.S. troops there—a gesture meant to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to Germany and NATO after the dark days of Trump. Biden officials note that they have rejoined the Paris climate accord, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and are doing their best to save the Iran nuclear deal. They are also engaging with the EU to resolve long-running trade disputes like the Airbus-Boeing subsidies row. “We feel like we’ve been making a good faith effort to right the ship but we’re not getting much in return,” one senior official told me. “The narrative is taking hold that Berlin simply doesn’t want to play.”

G7 Test

Talk to German officials and you hear a different story. They accuse the Biden administration of not consulting them early enough on its plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and they complain about “Made in America” industrial policies and U.S. resistance to multilateral trade deals. The administration’s confrontational tone on China is also a growing source of concern in Berlin and Paris. “The U.S. debate has become very ideological,” the senior French diplomat told me. “Should we be talking about human rights? Yes of course. But should we be using them as a cudgel to hit China at every opportunity? We would question that.” Three months into the administration, one needs to consider the possibility that satisfying China hawks in Congress may be at odds with Biden’s goal of building a coalition with Europe on China. The more Biden ratchets up the pressure on Beijing, the greater the sense in Berlin and Paris that they must compensate for this by reaching out to China. In a vicious circle, that deepens resentment in Washington over Europe’s stance, making transatlantic cooperation more difficult. “Merkel is trying to avoid another Cold War,” a senior German diplomat told me. “That is what all this dialogue with Beijing is all about.” The upcoming G7 summit will be the first real test of transatlantic unity on China. Daleep Singh, Biden’s deputy national security adviser, signaled last month that Washington would be pushing allies for strong language on forced labor in Xinjiang and support for the idea of a broader strategic rivalry between democratic and authoritarian states. It is doubtful whether Berlin, Paris, and Rome will sign up to this. I was told that Chinese diplomats are already warning European G7 capitals of consequences if the summit goes too far on Beijing’s red lines—Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. “We know that China will be a major focus, but the Americans won’t get everything they’re asking for,” the German official said.

Waiting for Merkel To Go

Interestingly, it is not only in Europe’s relations with China where Berlin and Paris appear intent on presenting a united front. In recent months, senior German officials have insisted that their French counterparts be present when talking to members of the Biden administration, I was told. The insistence on trilaterals has unnerved the Americans and sparked questions from British officials, who seem keen to stick to the E3 format that was routine when the United Kingdom was a member of the EU. Berlin and Paris, however, no longer seem interested in that constellation. “For a while it was Paris that was driving this, but our impression is that the French have now won over the Germans,” the Biden administration official said. The question of who to talk to in Europe has been a conundrum for U.S. administrations for decades—and the Biden team is still trying to figure out the best approach when it comes to China. Some in the administration insist that there is no way around the big European capitals, no matter how challenging. Others are pushing for stronger engagement with Brussels, seeing a like-minded interlocutor in European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The Commission is poised to unveil a series of new legislative measures that are aimed primarily at China, including an anti-subsidies proposal later this week and another on supply-chain due diligence in the months ahead. The EU is also exploring ways to breath new life into its stillborn connectivity strategy, and it will announce a partnership with India in the days ahead—perhaps a prelude to closer cooperation with Washington to respond to China's Belt and Road Initiative. Von der Leyen and her successor as German defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, are among the few senior European officials who are publicly urging Europe to grasp Biden’s outstretched hand on China. Regardless of where the Biden team chooses to focus its diplomatic energy, a growing contingent in the White House has begun to question whether a real discussion with Berlin on China will be possible before Merkel goes.

Time Warp

That view will have been reinforced by the latest edition of German-Chinese government consultations, which took place on a virtual basis last week. The discussions appeared to be taking place in a time warp—as if both sides had been teleported back to the good old days when the relationship was all about business, without pesky irritants like sanctions, Uighurs, Hong Kong, and “wolf warrior” threats. In the end, the two foreign ministers, Heiko Maas and Wang Yi, put out a lengthy joint communiqué littered with win-win platitudes plucked from another era. “Both sides reaffirmed their readiness to strengthen mutual understanding and political trust to ensure the long-term and stable development of their relationship,” the statement began. There was one line that did grab my attention. The German and Chinese governments, the foreign ministers said, would soon launch “comprehensive, region-wide Asia-Pacific consultations.” What this means in practice is unclear. But it looks like a German effort to reassure Beijing about Europe’s intentions in the Indo-Pacific. Why Berlin feels the need to do so is another matter. There was no mention of China’s sanctions against German and European lawmakers, academics and think tanks, but there was strong support for the CAI from Merkel, who referred to it as a “cornerstone” of fair, transparent, and reciprocal economic relations between Europe and China. Beijing, on the other hand, no longer seems wedded to the agreement. “I think they understand that the deal is under threat because of their sanctions,” the German official said. “But their attitude seems to be: if you don’t want it then that’s your problem.”

After Merkel

What China does seem concerned about is life after Merkel. And she seemed to acknowledge the legitimacy of those concerns when she expressed hope last week that the bilateral consultations between Berlin and Beijing—a format she launched in 2011—would continue in the years ahead. It was not lost on anyone that Annalena Baerbock, in her first newspaper interview after being named chancellor candidate for the surging Greens, slammed Merkel’s foreign policy “passivity” and promised a new approach to China. “We find ourselves in a systemic competition, of authoritarian powers versus liberal democracies. And I am talking about China here,” she told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, before launching into a critique of the Belt and Road Initiative, the CAI, and Beijing’s human rights record. “Of course, the Chinese are worried,” the German official said. “They look at the German party landscape and see that there are fewer and fewer politicians out there that want a close relationship with China.”

Glucksmann on China

To wrap up, a few words about my latest “Watching China in Europe” podcast, which is also out today. I spoke with Raphaël Glucksmann, a member of the European Parliament and chairman of its special committee that is looking into foreign interference and disinformation. Glucksmann told me that he has received assurances that the EU will be given a more robust mandate to look into Chinese disinformation. In case you missed it, a special report from the European External Action Service delved into this issue last week. You can listen to the podcast here.