The European Union’s 27 leaders will seek a new approach to China on Tuesday in their first summit on Sino-European strategy since the bloc imposed sanctions on Beijing in March and faced retaliation, jeopardising a new investment pact.
Along with the US, Britain and Canada, the EU imposed sanctions on Chinese officials on March 22 over human rights abuses, which Beijing denies.
The EU was immediately hit by Beijing with sanctions on European Parliament lawmakers, freezing approval of a recently agreed EU-China investment deal.
“The EU has sought to avoid confrontation with Beijing, but we can no longer regard China as a benign trading partner,” an EU diplomat said.
In a move that could be seen as the beginning of the EU’s post-Merkel era, the Commission has agreed to “realign” its economic interests to Washington over Beijing.
The outgoing German Chancellor has been one of the biggest proponents of the EU-China deal signed in January.
A Commission official told Politico: “Both sides agreed on the need to realign our economic policies [to deal with Beijing], but we also explained that on the EU side, there was no intention to decouple from China.”
At a country estate in Slovenia, EU leaders will also hear from French President Emmanuel Macron on how the bloc can try to project strength in international affairs after Britain, the United States and Australia agreed in secret a military alliance to counter China, excluding France.
As the world’s largest trading bloc, the EU wields power in setting rules that can shape policy far beyond its borders, but it has repeatedly failed to coordinate a common foreign and military policy, weakening its influence.
Senior EU officials and diplomats hope the informal gathering can be a moment to debate both becoming more independent of the US and playing a part in Washington’s foreign policy shift to Asia.
No decisions are set to be taken.
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“The United States has recognised the importance of a stronger and more capable European defence,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday before leaving for Slovenia. “Crises in the European neighbourhood are a call for us to react.”
The meeting in Brdo, near the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, will start on Tuesday evening. EU leaders will be joined on Wednesday by the six Balkan countries hoping one day to join the bloc.
Australia’s decision to cancel a big submarine contract with France and opt for US-designed vessels instead as part of the new AUKUS security alliance with Washington and London incensed Paris, but could give impetus to EU common defence plans.
“We could turn a blind eye and act as if nothing had happened. We think that would be a mistake for all Europeans,” an adviser to Mr Macron told reporters. “There really is an opportunity here.”
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Mr Borrell also called that development a “wake-up call”, while insisting that Washington remained Brussels’ closest ally.
The new EU foreign policy stance comes as the US also seeks to push for a stronger alliance with Japan against China.
New Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Tuesday affirmed Tokyo’s alliance with Washington and signalled concerns about China’s posture over Taiwan.
Taiwan and broader relations with Beijing are likely to dominate security policies and foreign relations from the outset of Kishida’s tenure, and could emerge as a key issue in the upcoming general election, analysts say.
Underscoring the new cabinet’s China focus, Kishida created a new post of economy security minister, filled by an official who helped craft policies aimed at protecting sensitive technologies in supply chains and cyber security from China.
Asked about Taiwan, which has reported 148 flights by Chinese military planes into its air defence identification zone since Friday, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said he hoped “this matter is resolved peacefully between the two parties through direct talks”.
“Additionally, instead of simply monitoring the situation, we hope to weigh the various possible scenarios that may arise to consider what options we have, as well as the preparations we must make,” Mr Motegi said.
Mr Kishida’s retaining of Mr Motegi, along with Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi, signalled his desire to continue ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to boost security ties with the US while preserving trade relations with China, analysts say.
Shortly after being formally confirmed by the parliament in the top job, the 64-year-old Hiroshima native surprised the opposition by calling an election for Oct. 31 and vowed to bolster the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Kishida told reporters on Tuesday morning in Tokyo he had received a “strong” message from President Joe Biden about the US’ commitment to defending the disputed East China Sea islets known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan. China also claims the islands, which it calls the Daioyus.
In a phone conversation that lasted roughly 20 minutes, the allies also confirmed their cooperation toward achieving a free and open Indo-Pacific, Mr Kishida told reporters.