Europeans face the Chinese wall

“World” editorial. Clearly, the coronavirus has a good back. It is used as a pretext by the Chinese authorities to ban the vigil which, each year in Hong Kong, honors the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989. It provides a convenient excuse for Angela Merkel to thwart the plan of Donald Trump, who would have liked to summon its G7 partners at the end of June in Washington to show its voters that normalization is complete and to China that the West is united on the American line. And it was again the pandemic that was invoked on Wednesday June 3 by the German Chancellor and President Xi Jinping as an explanation for the postponement sine die of the EU-China summit scheduled for Leipzig on September 14.

This summit, bringing together the leaders of the Twenty-Seven and the Chinese president, was to be the centerpiece of the German presidency of the European Union, which Berlin ensures for six months from 1er July. It was an opportunity to show in Beijing that the Europeans were indeed 27 and not 17, by reference to the “17 + 1” format favored by China: these are 17 countries from Central Europe and the Balkans, including 11 are members of the EU, which Beijing particularly cares for as part of its “new silk routes” strategy, which incidentally allows it to play on the divisions of Europe. In short, Germany had high hopes for this top-notch diplomatic exercise.

Partner and rival

Expectations were all the stronger as the relationship with China became even more complicated during the pandemic. For the European bloc, China is an essential partner on major international issues, in particular on climate issues and on the debt of African countries, but also an economic competitor and a “Systemic rival”. The EU must contend with an increasingly assertive power, which now poses as an alternative model and refuses transparency.

The growing tension between Beijing and Washington, with the prospect of a new cold war, accentuates the difficulties: the Europeans do not wish to adopt the attitude of open confrontation which is that of their American ally towards China, but nor can they turn a blind eye to the abuses of the Chinese regime, such as the repression of Uighur Muslims and the violations of the “one country, two systems” principle regarding Hong Kong.

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The Sino-European summit therefore intervened in a potentially very tense context, with a possible showdown on the status of Hong Kong and, in the United States, a President Trump playing for his re-election six weeks later. Berlin maintains that the health situation is the reason for the postponement of the summit, but it is clear that the chances of achieving a tangible result appeared increasingly tenuous, like those of solving the equation, thus posed by a high German official: “Establish good cooperation with Beijing while having a dialogue on values”.

This equation more or less corresponds to the double imperative formulated by Paris with regard to China: “Commitment and requirement”. If the Europeans want to avoid having to choose between Beijing and Washington in the emerging confrontation, they must start by deciding on a clear strategy towards China, which takes into account their own power, their interests and of their values. Such an objective for the German presidency of the EU would advantageously replace a great summit, certainly media-oriented, but not very productive.

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