IT HAS NOT been a good ten days for Beijing in Europe, where a hardening stance on China is being more readily articulated.
Last weekend’s G7 meeting solidified US President Joe Biden’s steady assemblage of an alliance against China. It elicited a promise from Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi that his country would reassess its participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); Italy is the first and so far only EU country to sign up for the BRI, which Biden now wants to counter with his Build Back Better World (B3W) investment initiative.
The G7 further pushed Beijing’s buttons by criticising China for alleged human rights abuses and called for a further investigation into the origins of Covid-19. For the first time, a G7 summit communique mentioned Taiwan.
Hard on the heels of the G7 came a NATO summit that warned that China was increasingly operating within its sphere of influence and said that Beijing is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal, is opaque about its military modernisation and is co-operating militarily with Russia. Those are strong words, by NATO standards.
The Europeans’ ranks may be closing but are still not solid. Europeans do not want to be pushed into making a public choice between the United States and China, especially as they know they would have to side with the former. That would have political consequences they would rather avoid.
France and Germany are particularly keen to keep open trade, investment and academic and research links with China. However, Germany’s enthusiasm may moderate once Chancellor Angela Merkel, the European leader least convinced of the need to reset relations with China, steps down from office at the end of her fourth term in a few months.
Italy, too, will take its time in deciding whether to withdraw from the BRI, fearful of the potential damage that could cause the fragile Italian economy.
More worrisome for Beijing is that the far right-wing Brothers of Italy may be part of the next Italian government. The party holds a generally hawkish view of China and a Trump-like position on protecting the Italian economy from Chinese economic influence in strategic sectors.
How much the past ten days have substantively changed the relationship between Europe and China is moot. That Beijing has reacted in its now routine way — by denouncing the West for interfering in its domestic affairs and taking a Cold War mentality — may suggest that the change is one more of tone.
Tone, though, matters in international relations. These past ten days have confirmed that elite opinion in Europe is now more aligned with those European politicians and publics that are increasingly inclined to view China negatively and with similar shifts in attitudes in the United States.
This will improve the effectiveness of EU measures that seek to redress what is seen as undue influence in Europe’s civil societies and unfair Chinese competition in its markets and bolster Biden’s efforts to coordinate policy towards China with like-minded democracies.
That, in turn, will require new strategies from Beijing, which will no longer be able to create and exploit divisions in the West as easily.