PRAGUE – Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has wrapped up what many saw as a damage control tour across Europe, a diplomatic mission that by most accounts met with mixed results.
It was never going to be easy. Wang arrived in Europe at a time frustration with China had hit new heights on the continent, not least due to Beijing’s often less-than-diplomatic handling of the pandemic that originated on its shores.
Yet Wang’s advance scout trip allowed him to bear the brunt of European admonishments before a widely anticipated special summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and European leaders scheduled for later this month.
While European governments are now clearly more willing to criticize Beijing’s controversial moves, they remain committed as ever to improving, not severing, relations with China while charting a foreign policy more independent of the United States.
That marks a clear and decided departure from US President Donald Trump’s trade and tech wars aimed at “decoupling” the US from China. While European leaders have taken certain cues from Trump, it’s clearer than ever that the continent does not intend to blindly follow his lead.
Previously, it was rather straightforward for Chinese diplomats to win the sympathies of their European hosts by pointing to Trump’s follies and stressing Beijing’s supposed unswerving commitments to free trade and combating climate change.
Wang, by and large, continued with this playbook. In Paris, he spoke of forging “green” and “digital” partnerships with Europe. In the Netherlands, an ardent free-trade champion, he spoke of the importance of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) anti-protectionist reforms.
China’s top diplomat also sought to portray the US, not China, as a threat to peace and security, saying that Beijing was fundamentally opposed to a “New Cold War” and stood for “unity, cooperation, openness, and inclusiveness.”
Wang’s tour notably skipped the United Kingdom, which in recent months went from the most approving of Chinese influence in Europe to its leading critic. Neither did Wang’s entourage stop in Brussels to meet with increasingly critical European Union (EU) leaders.
Instead, his visit featured whistle stops in France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Germany.
Still, Wang had his diplomatic work cut out for him. China’s diplomats had earlier publicly ridiculed European governments’ poor handling of the Covid-19 crisis. At the peak of the continent’s outbreaks in March and April, Beijing was even accused of peddling safety equipment in return for loyalty.
European governments have also become more willing to criticize Beijing’s perceived abuses, ranging from the detention camps where it holds its Uighur minority in Xinjiang to the imposition of a controversial national security law over Hong Kong that has eroded the city’s semi-autonomous standing.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Mass, for one, said during Wang’s trip that Berlin would “welcome it if China granted UN observers access to the [Uighur] camps” in Xinjiang.
There is also frustration with Beijing’s perceived foot-dragging, especially in regard to easing restrictions on European access to Chinese markets, the prime reason why talks for an EU-China investment pact have moved at a glacial pace.
Not long after Wang arrived in Europe, the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell wrote an op-ed that critically referred to China as a “new empire” and urged Europe to rectify its relations with Beijing before it’s “too late.”
Borrell wrote: “we too must necessarily learn to speak what I have called the language of power.”
Wang spoke that same language during his trip. Speaking in Paris, China’s top diplomat threatened Norway if the Nobel Peace Prize was given to Chinese human rights activists, as is apparently being considered.
While in the Netherlands and Germany, Wang lashed out against Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil, who arrived in Taiwan for a controversial state visit last week.
Wang said Vystrcil would “pay a heavy price for his short-sighted behavior and political opportunism” without elaborating on what form the reprisals might take. China considers Taiwan a renegade province that must be “reunited” with the mainland.
German Foreign Minister Maas responded diplomatically during a press conference by saying, “threats have no place here ” and that Europeans stood together “shoulder to shoulder.”
More broadly, Maas added that Europe won’t allow itself to “become a political football in the great-power rivalry between the US, Russia and China.”
“At the moment I am trying to make it clear to everyone I talk to … that they must brace themselves for Europe to represent its interests more confidently,” Maas said.
While Europe prepares a more confident foreign policy, Wang’s oft-repeated message that China opposes a “New Cold War” was welcomed in certain of the European capitals he visited.
“A decoupling of the relationship between the EU and China is not in our interest,” Maas, Germany’s top diplomat, said at a press conference with Wang. “It’s in no one’s interest.”
In many ways, Wang’s visit was a warm-up act for Xi’s video summit with several EU leaders and European heads of government on September 14.
Analysts believe the summit could see both sides reach an agreement on a long-elusive investment pact and other long-term bilateral strategies.
It awaits to be seen whether European leaders have now said what they needed to about China’s human rights violations and perceived aggression during Wang’s tour, and thus won’t feel the need to make similar admonishments during their talks with Xi.
As such, Wang’s visit might have been intended to soak up European frustrations that have been building since March so that Xi’s summit is harmonious and not acrimonious.
Throughout Wang’s visit, though, there was a certain sense that Europe’s attention was elsewhere. This can be forgiven since the continent’s leaders could be justified in disagreeing with the US that China is the most dangerous issue affecting international peace.
When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Central Europe last month, he said in the Czech Republic that “the Chinese Communist Party’s campaigns of coercion and control” are potentially a greater global threat than the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. Russia and China are now closely aligned against the US.
Wang’s trip coincided with the budding crisis in Belarus, a non-EU state where street protests are threatening to topple the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s longest-ruling dictator who is accused of rigging a recent election to stay in power.
Because Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to support Lukashenko, potentially even militarily, the crisis has raised the threat of a new Russian troop deployment on European soil.
Moreover, Moscow belatedly allowed Aleksei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, to be transferred to a German hospital for treatment late last month for what Russian doctors said was “vitamin deficiency.”
On September 2, Berlin confirmed what most pundits suspected, stating there was “unequivocal evidence” that Navalny had been poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent from the Novichok family, a chemical weapon manufactured during Soviet times and which was used against another Kremlin critic years ago.
Moscow naturally denied any role, but its less-than-strenuous effort to conceal the poisoning was a sinister reminder that it doesn’t care much about offending international sensibilities, analysts and commentators said.
Another flashpoint close to home is the rising tensions between Greece and Turkey over competing claims to natural gas reserves in their contested waters, as each side engages in military drills this month near the other’s territory.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was recently forced to step in and force talks between the two sides to “establish mechanisms for military deconfliction to reduce the risk of incidents and accidents in the eastern Mediterranean,” he said in a statement.
That statement came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week threatened a military response against Greece, an EU member.
When EU top diplomat Borrell described China as a “new empire” in his signed op-ed, he notably put it in league with Russia and Turkey.
“Russia, China and Turkey share common characteristics: they are sovereignists on the outside and authoritarian on the inside,” he wrote in the French newspaper Le Journal de Dimanche.
“After 30 years where the European vision seemed to gain ground, the sovereignist vision has regained the upper hand with these new empires.”