The European Union’s foreign policy chief has ruled out a transatlantic alliance against China and dismissed “systematic rivalry” with Beijing, just hours before he is due to talk to his US counterpart.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell called for a “big, positive agenda for EU-China cooperation” on Sunday, just a day before he and the 27 foreign ministers from the bloc are expected to have a videoconference with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The meeting is expected to focus on China and “disinformation”, and will be followed in a week’s time by the first EU-China summit under European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel. The two EU chiefs will meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, with the discussions expected to focus on market access.
In a post on his official site on Sunday, Borrell said the EU would not pick a side in the US-China conflict, adding that the European style of diplomacy focused on multilateralism and cooperation.
“Amid US-China tensions as the main axis of global politics, the pressure to ‘choose sides’ is increasing,” he said. “We as Europeans have to do it ‘My Way’, with all the challenges this brings.”
He also offered the clearest sign yet that the EU was prepared to tone down its rhetoric of treating China as a “systemic rival”, a policy reached by the last EU Commission team whose term ended late last year.
“Our relations with China are unavoidably complex and multifaceted,” Borrell said. “The words ‘systemic rival’ have drawn a lot of attention, maybe more for the ‘rival’ than the ‘systemic’ part of the expression.
“But it doesn’t mean that we are embarking [on] a systematic rivalry.”
Virginie Battu-Henriksson, Borrell’s spokeswoman, said the statement did not amount to a policy change.
“This is not at all in contradiction with the strategic outlook, which clearly said China is, simultaneously, in different policy areas, a cooperation partner with whom the EU has closely aligned objectives, a negotiating partner with whom the EU needs to find a balance of interests, an economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership, and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance,” she said.
To avoid conflict beyond its trade war and geopolitical contest with the US, China has repeatedly rejected the idea of systemic rivalry with the EU, saying its relations with the bloc were based on partnership.
“With cooperation and consensus always greater than competition and differences, China and the EU are long-term, comprehensive, strategic partners,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Borrell in a meeting last week.
Borrell’s post echoed this view, promising a “big, positive agenda for EU-China cooperation”.
“China is playing an ever-growing role in global politics, and we have great interest in working together on the many issues where its role is essential, from the recovery of the pandemic to climate change and sustainable connectivity,” he said.
While there had been few results from the EU’s push for China to open up its market further, Borrell said this was an area “where good faith negotiations can produce good outcomes for both sides”.
“I hope we can conclude them as soon as possible to end the current situation of asymmetric openness,” he said, referring to the negotiations over the EU-China investment treaty that both sides hope to complete this year.
While the EU and the US share similar concerns about China’s state-controlled economy, the bloc has rejected calls to hew closer to Washington’s path.
“US-China relations are set on a path of global competition, regardless who will be in the White House next January. And this confrontation will frame the future world order,” Borrell wrote.
He said the transatlantic relationship remained vital for Europe – “the values we share form its bedrock” – but it was strained by US President Donald Trump, whose administration “has taken unilateral decisions with which we do not always agree”.
“The European Way for sure includes working with like-minded to keep the multilateral system as a space for cooperation, even if great powers use it increasingly as a battleground,” he said.
“We must uphold and defend our own interests and values. We must use as a compass not the expectations or pressures from outsiders, but what we as the EU want and need.”
But this was not always easy.
“It is no secret that the 27 member states have differing views on how to best approach this. Some push for alignment, others for equidistance,” he said.
If the grass is greener on the other side, you can bet the water bill is higher.