The EU officially regards China as a partner, an economic competitor as well as a systemic rival.
European Union leaders have warned against being drawn into a confrontation with China and a breakdown in ties but said they would stand up for their principles and independence in relations with Beijing.
During a summit in Brussels on Friday, the 27-nation bloc held three hours of strategic talks on its approach to China as President Xi Jinping tightens his grip over an ever more assertive Beijing.
Torn between the desire to access China’s vast markets and condemnation of its rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, as well as aggressive policies in Hong Kong and towards Taiwan, the EU has struggled to fashion a cohesive stance towards Beijing.
“This discussion showed a very clear will to avoid being naive, but neither did we want to embark into a logic of systematic confrontation [with China],” summit host and EU Council President Charles Michel said on Friday.
Michel insisted the bloc has its “own model to develop” at a time of intensifying rivalry between China and the United States.
“We will always be firm in standing up to defend our principles, democracy, fundamental freedoms,” Michel said.
Since 2019, the EU has officially regarded China as a partner, an economic competitor as well as a systemic rival.
An EU foreign policy paper prepared for the summit stated that Beijing should now be thought of primarily as a competitor which is promoting “an alternative vision of the world order”.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Beijing was “continuing its mission to establish its dominance in East Asia and its influence globally”. She also warned about the close ties between China and Russia, despite the international condemnation of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
“These developments will affect the EU-China relationship,” von der Leyen said.
The EU is also keen to ensure it does not fall into a trap — as it did with Russia — of becoming dependent on China for critical raw materials and technologies.
“Obviously, we have to be very vigilant when it comes to dependencies. And we’ve learned our lesson,” von der Leyen said.
Responding to the comments by EU leaders, a spokesperson for China’s Mission to the EU said late on Friday that the “deeply ideology-orientated remarks” reflected the views of some people who “cling on to bloc politics mindset, priding their own values as the absolute truth and wantonly imposing their ideology on others”.
“China…equally opposes and urges all to stay alert to the rising clamour for ideological confrontation, which might lead to clashes or even confrontations among civilisations,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
China is committed to peace, friendship and cooperation with other countries, and believes that “China and the EU are partners rather than rivals, and that China-EU cooperation far outweighs our competition”, the spokesperson said.
The EU is seeking to present a united front on China but this has been clouded by the differing economic interests of its members.
“We have made strategic errors in the past with the sale of infrastructures to China,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, who called for a more even playing field between Beijing and the EU.
Olaf Scholz, the leader of the bloc’s economic powerhouse Germany, announced on Friday after the summit that he will take a German government delegation to China next month. It will be the first visit by an EU leader to the country since November 2019.
“There is great unanimity,” Scholz said. “No one is saying that we can no longer invest there, that we can no longer import from China”.
But other leaders were wary about Scholz’s upcoming visit.
“With China, it is the same as with Russia, it is in their interest that we are divided,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said.
“It’s in our interest that we are united and talk with one voice.”
The EU’s discussion on China comes as a top US general warned this week that Washington must be ready to respond to a potential invasion of Taiwan as soon as this year.
Asked about EU contingency planning related to a possible invasion of Taiwan, Michel refused to make any “prophecy in the military field”.
The EU strategy paper which was prepared for the summit urged member states to proactively warn China of “possible consequences” if it seeks to take control of Taiwan through force.
Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins said it was important for the EU to also speak with China to ensure it was “on the right side of history” over Russia’s war against Ukraine.
“China is best dealt with when we are 27, not when we are one on one vis-à-vis China,” he said