US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first video conference with European Union foreign ministers last month was so good-humoured that some diplomats in Europe described it as a “love feast.”
But two high-ranking envoys who attended said there was no immediate response from the ministers gathered in Brussels when Blinken said: “We must push China back together and show strength in unity.”
Their reluctance is partly due to an unwillingness to commit to anything until Washington more fully outlines its China policy under President Joe Biden.
But ministers were also cautious as the EU seeks to strike a strategic balance in relations with Beijing and Washington that would ensure that the bloc is not so closely tied to one of the world’s two superpowers as to alienate the other.
The EU also hopes to have sufficient independence from Washington and Beijing to deepen ties on its own with countries in the Indo-Pacific region, such as India, Japan and Australia, EU officials said.
In another move to the EU, they said, the bloc hopes to agree next month on a plan that would include a larger and more assertive security presence in the Indo-Pacific and increased development aid, trade and diplomacy.
“We are looking for a third way between Washington and Beijing,” said an EU envoy to Asia.
Another EU official in Asia expressed concern that the United States “had an aggressive agenda against China, which is not our agenda”.
‘EUROPE ROAD SHOW’
Last month’s video conference was part of an effort under Biden to rebuild alliances neglected by former US President Donald Trump, who had a hostile relationship with both the EU and China.
The White House has embarked on a “Europe roadshow,” said a senior US official, and is in daily contact with European governments about China’s emerging power in “a sustained effort for … a high degree of coordination and cooperation.” in a number of areas.”
As a sign that US pressure on China is having an effect, Germany plans to send a frigate to Asia and across the South China Sea in August, where Beijing has military outposts on artificial islands, senior government officials told Reuters.
The EU will also impose sanctions on four Chinese officials and one entity — with travel bans and asset freezes — on March 22 for human rights violations in China’s Uyghur Muslim minority, diplomats said.
As another sign, when Chinese President Xi Jinping chaired a video summit with Central and Eastern European countries last month, six EU member states — Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia — sent ministers instead of heads of state.
But there is still mistrust in Brussels over Washington’s approach to China, even as stances in Europe against China have hardened over Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong, its treatment of Uyghur Muslims and the COVID-19 pandemic. , which was first established in China.
The United States says China is an authoritarian country that has embarked on a military modernization that threatens the West, and has sought to weaken telecommunications equipment manufacturer Huawei, which it sees as a threat to national security.
NATO’s US-led military alliance is also starting to focus on China, but the Biden administration is still reviewing policy.
“We ask what their China strategy is and they say they still don’t have one,” the EU official in Asia said.
French President Emmanuel Macron last month highlighted concerns in some EU countries, saying unity against China would create “the highest possible” potential for conflict.
But the EU is hungry for new trade and sees the Indo-Pacific as huge potential.
The EU has a trade agreement with Japan and is negotiating it with Australia. Diplomats say Indo-Pacific countries want the EU to become more active in the region to keep trade free and open, and to ensure they don’t face a direct choice between Beijing and Washington.
France promised in 2018 closer ties with allies such as Australia and India with an Indo-Pacific strategy, followed by the Netherlands, which also has its own strategy, and Germany’s looser set of “guidelines”.
The EU strategy, if agreed, could include deploying more EU military experts in EU diplomatic missions in Asia, training coast guards and sending more EU military personnel to serve on Australian ships patrolling the Indian Ocean said diplomats.
It is unclear to what extent Germany, which has close business ties to China, will commit to a new strategy. German government officials say the EU cannot afford to alienate Beijing, despite China being labeled a “systemic rival” in 2019.
But French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will travel to India in April to develop the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy, and the EU plans to hold a summit with India this year.
France, which has 1.8 million inhabitants in the Pacific Overseas Territories, has about 4,000 troops in the region, plus naval vessels and patrol boats.
“The Indo-Pacific is the cornerstone of Europe’s geopolitical path,” said a French diplomat. “There is no alternative.”
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