A European parliamentarian during a bilateral meeting with China in a file photo. Image: AFP

China’s relations with Europe are going from bad to worse almost by the day. United Kingdom-China relations are exhibit A of the downtrend, with London recently effectively banning Chinese tech giant Huawei from its 5G network rollout.

The UK has also taken a hard line on China’s tightening grip on Hong Kong, sparking a war of words where Beijing has accused London of “brutal meddling” in its internal affairs and threatening to retract billions of dollars worth of investment and commitments from the UK.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab intensified the feud by accusing Beijing of “gross and egregious” rights abuses some have even characterized as genocide against its minority Uighur population, following in lockstep with US sanctions imposed on the issue.

China’s ambassador Liu Xiaoming denied the presence of concentration camps in China’s Xinjiang province in a BBC interview. Chinese state media has oscillated between asserting Britain wants to restore its empire to being a weak power trying to reprove itself. 

For many Europeans, the so-called “New Cold War” pitting the US and China was happening somewhere else, in the minds of “hawks” in Washington and apparatchiks in Beijing, or on the distant waves of the South China Sea or icy reaches of the China-India border. 

But when the coronavirus arrived in Europe in March, forcing unprecedented border closures, regionwide economic shutdowns and more than 200,000 deaths so far, so, too, did the realization that Europe is now at center stage of the superpower competition.

The flags of China and the EU are displayed inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: AFP

The pandemic was a wake-up call as well as validation for Europe’s own China hawks, who for years had argued that governments should take seriously Beijing’s controversial economic practices, its human rights violations and its sweeping global ambitions, including not least security risks associated with Huawei and its 5G equipment.

In April, Reinhard Buetikofer, a German lawmaker and chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China, exclaimed that “China has lost Europe” due to its handling and messaging around the coronavirus crisis.

Beijing immediately responded to the pandemic by blaming others, claiming that the virus originated in a US military base or in Italy according to conspiracy theories advanced by China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman. Meanwhile, Chinese diplomats publicly ridiculed European states for their poor handling of the crisis.

For Europe’s China hawks, this has all vindicated their past warnings. And their side of the argument is now gaining momentum across the continent. Indeed, Europe’s China “doves” have gone mostly silent and even moderate voices are acceding to calls for limited censures of China.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains tied to the path of least resistance with China, commenting last week that it is still vital to “seek dialogue” with China on the basis of “mutual respect” and a “relationship of trust”, as the Financial Times reported her saying.

Not everyone in her government agrees. The Social Democrats, a junior coalition partner to Merkel’s Christian Democrats, are increasingly critical of her China policy, with the party’s foreign policy spokesman Nils Schmid saying last week:  “Merkel’s China policy is behind the times.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomes China’s President Xi Jinping to the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 7, 2017. Photo: AFP/Odd Anderson

Norbert Röttgen, head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee and a potential successor to Merkel when she is scheduled to step down next year, has become a leading conservative voice pressing Berlin to take a harder line on Beijing.

“This is a test of Germany’s credibility in forging a European strategy towards China,” he said earlier this month. “It’s a test of how we counter China’s increasingly assertive stance in the world. We need to signal that China’s Hong Kong policy will hurt its international image.”

In Britain, the governing Conservative Party has seen the rise of a loud and forceful cohort of China hawks on its backbenches, led by several senior party grandees as well as newcomers who in March formed the China Research Group, an intra-party think tank.

Until recently, the Conservative Party was the most pro-China faction in British politics. Under consecutive Tory-led governments, the UK became the largest recipient of Chinese investment on the continent since 2015, when London crowed about a new “golden age” of UK-China relations.

Such a volte-face isn’t unusual on either side of the Atlantic. Many of America’s China hawks are not “so much hawks as unhappy ex-doves,” who were once “advocates of engagement, but have been disappointed by illiberal, aggressive choices made by Chinese rulers,” an Economist commentary said.

The trend is sweeping Europe. Czech President Milos Zeman has long been his country’s pro-Beijing cheerleader, but in January said he wouldn’t attend an upcoming regional summit with China to protest over how little his country had actually received in promised Chinese investment.

Czech President Milos Zeman has taken a hard line on China. Image: Facebook

Indeed, across parts of Central and Eastern Europe enthusiasm for Chinese trade and investment after Beijing created a separate forum with the region in 2012 has turned into skepticism and despondency. Of Chinese investment in Europe since 2010, almost all has gone to the UK, Germany and France, statistics show. 

Public opinion is also hardening. A recent poll by the British-based research group Institute for Global Change found that only 3% of Britons, 4% of Germans and 5% of the French consider China a “force for good” in the world

Swedes were by far the most anti-China of European populations (70% held negative opinions) when Pew Research surveyed global sentiment last year. Czechs came second, with 57%.

Sweden, perhaps not coincidentally, was the only member state to formally put forward the idea of the European Union (EU) sanctioning Beijing over its imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong last month.

Whether the rise of Europe’s China hawks actually lead to a profound shift in policy waits to be seen. There is a feeling in Europe that its relationship with China has to change (“there can be no going back to business as usual”, as the British government put it), yet exactly what that change will look like is still unclear.

For now, a special EU-China summit planned for September in the German city of Leipzig was postponed, most likely due to the coronavirus but also perhaps to save blushes as a bilateral investment pact that was expected to be agreed at the summit has stalled.

The EU’s new rules on screening mechanisms for outside investment comes into effect later this year, which will help member states to prevent takeovers of strategic European firms by outside investors, chiefly Chinese.

Some of the member states that have already implemented such mechanisms strengthened them in recent months, including Germany.

Perceptions are shifting on the Chinese tech giant in Europe. Image: AFP

Meanwhile, Huawei is on the ropes. Several European countries have already banned the tech giant based on accusations it could spy on behalf of Beijing. London’s decision last week, as well as the loss of contracts in France and Italy, point to a downhill trend for the Chinese tech giant. 

 “[The] UK’s rejection of Huawei is likely to increase other countries’ hesitation,” even the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times admitted.

But as François Godement, a senior advisor for Asia at the Institut Montaigne in Paris, noted in a report last month, the EU has been effective at “defensive economic policies” but less so with “offensive” actions.

After Beijing’s imposition of direct rule over Hong Kong last month, a chorus of Europeans politicians and pundits called on Brussels to take a tougher line.

Yet, whereas the US and Canada have cut trade privileges with Hong Kong, so far the EU has only expressed “grave concerns” and said rather obviously that Beijing’s decision risks “having a detrimental effect on the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.”

Last month, before Beijing followed through on its security law threats, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen vowed it would suffer “very negative consequences.” If it clamped down on Hong Kong.

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen at a press conference after a virtual summit between EU and China via video conference in Brussels, Belgium on June 22, 2020. Photo: AFP/Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency

But EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell seemingly walked back the threat during a mid-July press conference, while news reports said tougher responses, including sanctions, were hardly discussed among EU foreign ministers at a recent confab.

At the moment, the EU will likely only agree to ban the export of equipment to Hong Kong that could be used for police repression while offering refugee status to more Hong Kong activists threatened by the law.

The EU’s famous lack of unity on any major issue is one reason for the lack of a concerted pushback. Opposition from China’s allies in Hungary and Greece likely explains why the EU opted against taking a hard line on the Hong Kong clampdown.

Another reason is that the China question doesn’t neatly fit into the continent’s political divides. Across Europe, the political Left and Right, establishment and populist parties and Eurosceptics and pro-EU parties all have their own respective China hawks and doves. 

As such, China hawks cannot quickly and readily find natural alliances, forcing them forge cross-party accords and agreements. This will take time, especially for politicians from different countries, but the trend is clearly cooling, not warming, towards China.