THE MEETING BETWEEN Wang Yi (above) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during the Munich Security Conference was testy.
Wang’s accusation that the United States was creating a political farce out of the shooting down of balloons indicated no desire to de-escalate the row, while Blinken’s assertion that China was preparing to supply Russia with weapons to use in Ukraine was equally goading.
In his formal speech to the conference, Wang described the US decision to shoot down the balloon as hysterical and absurd and an attempt to divert attention from its domestic problems. He also said the US would never dictate China-Russia relations.
Wang devoted much of his time in Munich to meeting EU leaders and his counterparts from the EU member states. China is attempting to drive a wedge into the crack that is appearing between the United States and its Western European allies over China.
At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos last month, French economy minister Bruno Le Maire said Europe and the United States differed on whether China was our or in, as he put it.
Le Maire’s boss, President Emmanuel Macron and the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, are both expected to visit Beijing later this year. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited China late last year.
A senior UK minister is another likely visitor as London, although not an EU member anymore, edges closer to the positions of Paris and Berlin that China is too big and powerful to ignore and diplomacy and engagement are more conducive to managing differences than hostile rivalry and competition.
US President Joe Biden has worked hard to bring Europe ‘onside’ with his increasingly hard-line on China (a position he is partly forced to adopt by the increasing hawkishness towards China within the United States). However, he has yet to win European hearts and minds fully.
Wang told Borrell that China and the EU should restore relations to pre-epidemic levels as soon as possible and ‘resist decoupling’. He also told Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra that the Netherlands should play ‘a positive role in ensuring the stability of the global industrial and supply chains’, a plea not to go along with US efforts to cut off China’s supply of critical technologies.
Western European diplomats are, by instinct, more cooperative than their US counterparts, and Europe had closer relations with China, particularly during the Trump administration.
Yet the differences between Brussels and Beijing remain deep, and the EU and its member nations will not pull back from their efforts to diversify from China, stand up to economic coercion and crack down on cybersecurity threats. Nor will they care for Wang’s next stop after Munich being Moscow.
China is pushing at a door that is slightly ajar, not fully open.