China and the European Union are drifting apart at a crucial juncture in their trade relations. Photo: Facebook

PRAGUE – The European Union (EU) announced a tranche of new international sanctions on March 22 that included punitive measures against four senior politicians in China’s Xinjiang region, where critics claim Beijing is involved in extensive abuses against ethnic minority Uighur Muslims. 

Minutes after the EU’s announcement, Beijing revealed its own sanctions against nearly a dozen EU and European politicians, including five senior lawmakers, members of the EU Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights as well as leading academics. 

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told a press conference that Beijing’s immediate retaliation has created “a new atmosphere” and  “new situation” for EU-China relations. That new reality, analysts suggest, could jeopardize a new investment pact the two sides agreed to in principle in December.

Some already see the tit-for-tat sanctions as a watershed moment for Brussels, which until now has distanced itself from America’s recent more robust and punitive approach to China.  

Under the Biden administration, the US has stepped up its criticism of Beijing and exerted greater energy in building a cohort of democratic nations to rival China’s power in the Indo-Pacific.

That was seen in the first-ever “Quad” summit meeting held between the US, India, Japan and Australia earlier this month. While the Biden administration has called China’s mistreatment of Uighur Muslims a “genocide”, the EU has so far avoided the term.

Still, Brussels is the latest victim of Beijing’s so-called “wolf-warrior” diplomacy, where Foreign Ministry officials have been allowed by Beijing to respond to foreign criticism more forcefully and aggressively. 

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi addresses the media during a joint press conference with his German counterpart as part of a meeting in Berlin, Germany, on September 1, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Michael Sohn/Pool

“The EU’s move, based on nothing but lies and disinformation, disregards and distorts facts, grossly interferes in China’s internal affairs, flagrantly breaches international law and basic norms governing international relations, and severely undermines China-EU relations,” a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Monday.

According to China’s Foreign Ministry, sanctioned EU and European individuals will be barred from entering mainland China as well as Hong Kong and Macau and “companies and institutions” associated with them will be banned from doing business in China.

Details of who exactly Beijing has sanctioned are unclear but it is known that the punitive measures include members of the European Council’s Political and Security Committee, composed of ambassadorial-level representatives from member states, as well as five members of the European Parliament, including the prominent head of the body’s China delegation Reinhard Bütikofer.

Several European research institutions, including the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany, one of Europe’s largest, have also reportedly been targetted.

“The Chinese side urges the EU side to reflect on itself, face squarely the severity of its mistake and redress it,” the Chinese statement added. “It must stop lecturing others on human rights and interfering in their internal affairs. It must end the hypocritical practice of double standards and stop going further down the wrong path. Otherwise, China will resolutely make further reactions.”

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who has taken a gentler approach to China than others, wrote on Twitter: “China’s move is a completely unjustified response to the measures taken under the EU human rights sanctions regime. This will be taken up further in a European context.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called China’s actions “completely incomprehensible.” He said: “We sanction people who violate human rights, not parliamentarians, as has now been done by the Chinese side. This is neither comprehensible nor acceptable for us.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas makes a press statement at the Federal Foreign Ministry, November 2020. Photo: Clemens Bilan/EPA Pool/DPA

It is widely predicted that one of the first casualties of Beijing’s retaliation will be an investment pact that the European Commission, its executive, and China agreed to terms on in December, despite appeals from the then-incoming Biden team to delay the deal so that the EU and US could work together to extract greater concessions from Beijing. 

At the time, the EU- China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) received a harsh rebuke from leading China specialists in Europe, who argued that the deal offers greater benefits to Beijing than Brussels. 

Before ratification, the CAI must pass the European Parliament, which even before yesterday’s sanctions had taken a more skeptical view of Beijing than the European Commission.

“We cannot continue as if today didn’t mark a watershed moment. The right way forward is to suspend deliberations on CAI until the situation is resolved,” said Bernd Lange, chairman of the Parliament’s trade committee.

Beijing’s sanctions are also likely to force the EU to escalate its measures against the Chinese government, especially as Brussels is still reeling from an embarrassing trip Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, made to Moscow last month. 

During a joint press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rebuked the EU as an “unreliable partner”, to which Borrell at the time could only muster a grimace. Back in Brussels, he was admonished by several EU officials for not defending the bloc. 

All this also comes just a week after Yang Jiechi, China’s most seasoned diplomat who serves in the Politburo and who tends to leave indignant diatribes to Foreign Minister Wang Yi, launched a scathing attack on the US when meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan last week in Alaska. 

Blinken arrives in Brussels today to meet EU officials, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

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

As a result of Beijing’s retaliation, the EU and US may now work more closely together on issues relating to China, analysts suggest. Last week, Brussels announced that its Indo-Pacific strategy, which will define how the EU engages in Asia, will be released before the summer. 

Because of Beijing’s perceived responsibility for the Covid-19 pandemic and its lecturing response after infections skyrocketed in Europe this time last year, public opinion of China has plummeted in Europe over the past 12 months, reaching historic lows across much of the region according to recent polls. 

Given that Beijing’s own sanctions were announced so quickly after the EU’s sanctioning of Xinjiang officials, the Chinese Foreign Ministry must have been prepared for such an eventuality and therefore had given some thought to the implications of sanctioning EU officials. 

One possible explanation is that Beijing believes its retaliation will engender even more divisions within the EU, which Beijing has tended to benefit from in the past. Those divisions are already apparent: After the EU sanctioned Chinese officials on Monday, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto called Brussels’ actions “pointless, self-promoting and harmful.”

Hungary, the only authoritarian state in the EU, has repeatedly taken Beijing’s side in recent years. A number of EU states, including Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, are also currently trying to secure Covid-19 vaccines from China.

If Beijing threatens to withhold the vaccines, opposition to Brussels’ sanctions against the Xinjiang state officials could grow within the bloc, some analysts predict.  

Another possible explanation for Beijing’s retaliation is that it doesn’t consider ties with the EU – currently China’s largest trading partner – to be as integral as some within the bloc had believed. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Chinese President Xi Jinping are seen on a screen during a video conference to approve an investment pact between China and the European Union on December 30 in Brussels. Photo: AFP/Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency

Beijing may have reckoned it could score a quick nationalist hit by reprimanding Western officials, but without the risk of an escalation in tensions, sensing the EU’s traditional reticence at engaging in hostilities with global powers.

However, it is also possible that the opposite is true and that the move will prove yet another major foreign policy mistake by Beijing, which has a recent history of alienating potential allies and jeopardizing friendships abroad for the sake of appeasing nationalist sentiment at home.

EU officials, who are more used to imposing sanctions than being the ones sanctioned, may now more readily coalesce around the region’s more hawkish voices on China and seek to defend Europe’s reputation, perhaps even moving closer towards America’s line of thinking in what some see as an emerging New Cold War.