Beijing Is in a Very Awkward Situation Due to Four Major Misjudgments Against the EU

June 2, 2021 Updated: June 3, 2021


The relationship between China and Europe is deteriorating, and the European Union (EU) on May 20 passed a resolution to freeze ratification of the EU–China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), in response to China’s sanctions on EU politicians. What is foreseeable is that the Xi administration will make appropriate adjustments to its policy toward Europe in the future. At the current stage, Beijing is not willing or ready to let the EU become another rival in addition to the United States.

The recent series of actions by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) show that Xi Jinping, the CCP’s top leader, has repeatedly misjudged Europe, which is one of the reasons why the relationship between China and Europe has come to this point.

Misjudgment 1:

Beijing thinks the EU will be quiet about China’s human rights violations in exchange for economic benefits.

On the evening of Dec. 30, 2020, China and Europe concluded in principle the negotiations for the CAI, which caused the CCP’s official media to break into loud cheers.

For many years, the CCP has been dealing with Europe and the United States through its offers of economic benefits in exchange for less or no criticism of the CCP’s human rights problems. This tactic has worked repeatedly over the past decade or so.

On Dec. 7 last year, the EU adopted a decision and a regulation establishing a “global human rights sanctions regime.” The EU announced in a statement: “For the first time, the EU is equipping itself with a framework that would allow it to target individuals, entities, and bodies—including state and non-state actors—responsible for, involved in, or associated with serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide, no matter where they occurred.”

Prior to this, the EU’s human rights dialogue with China had been held 37 times, behind closed doors at Beijing’s request. Europe has now generally come to realize that this dialogue has had little impact on getting the CCP to improve its human rights record.

An attendant walks past flags of EU and China ahead of the EU-China High-level Economic Dialogue in Beijing
The EU-China trade deal is facing major hurdles due to human rights abuses in Xinjiang. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

Therefore, when the EU adopted a new human rights sanctions regime and concluded talks with Beijing on an economic agreement similar to the first phase of the U.S.-China economic and trade agreement, Xi made the first mistake in assuming that this was just a higher offer from the EU in terms of acknowledging economic benefits from China again, the EU would not turn completely to the United States, and it would remain silent on the CCP’s human rights issues as it had before.

That actually was the case until the end of last year—the CAI is indeed based on Beijing’s unilateral market opening to the EU.

Misjudgment 2:

Beijing does not realize that the EU’s orientation toward the CCP has changed.

In 2003, China and Europe established a comprehensive strategic partnership (pdf) and the two sides engaged in significant economic cooperation and trade. In 2013, after Xi took power, the two sides even published the “EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation.” But since then, the CCP’s conflict of interest with the EU has increased in many political and economic areas. In 2019, during the U.S.-China trade war, the EU’s orientation toward the CCP changed dramatically.

In March 2019, the EU published “EU-China – A strategic outlook” (pdf), which characterized the CCP as a “partner,” an “economic competitor,” and a “systemic rival.” This positioning is similar to the Biden administration’s positioning of the CCP today—namely that the EU will cooperate with the CCP on international issues such as climate change, compete economically with the CCP, and fight back when the CCP threatens its own security.

The Xi administration has clearly misjudged this new positioning of China-EU relations. After the EU imposed sanctions on the CCP in March this year over the Xinjiang human rights violations, Beijing was outraged with shame. This was reflected in the remarks of Wang Yi, the CCP’s foreign minister.

“It has never come to our mind that the EU will put sanctions on us,” Wang said, speaking at the Munich Security Conference on May 25. According to European media, he questioned “how a strategic partner could take such action.”

Epoch Times Photo
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a press conference briefing on the Belt and Road Summit at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing on April 19, 2019. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

Wang acknowledged that “Beijing had been shocked when Brussels placed sanctions on Chinese officials,” Reuters reported.

Wang also said that the sanctions reminded the CCP of “the days when they were bullied by European imperialists.”

Misjudgment 3:

Beijing underestimates the consequences of sanctions on Europe, as many sanctioned European lawmakers fight back.

Another sign of Beijing’s fury is the lack of reciprocity in the sanctions imposed by China and Europe. The CCP sanctioned 10 people and 4 entities of the EU, while the EU only sanctioned 4 people and 1 entity in China.

The sanctions imposed by the CCP on the EU have caused serious consequences. The Xi administration has misjudged or underestimated the consequences.

The most immediate consequence was the EU Parliament’s freezing of the ratification of the CAI on May 20. Moreover, the CCP’s sanctions have triggered various aftereffects.

For example, Samuel Cogolati, a member of the Belgian Parliament and one of the Europeans sanctioned by the CCP, reportedly claimed that Alibaba (Chinese e-commerce giant) was “a nest of spies” for the CCP.

This kind of reaction to Beijing’s sanctions took the Chinese regime by surprise. In addition, the challenges to human rights abuses, which were originally confined to Xinjiang, have gradually begun to spread to other areas because of the sanctions imposed by the CCP on European officials.

Actions taken by Lithuania have resulted in the biggest impact on the CCP’s diplomacy. On May 20, the Lithuanian Parliament claimed the CCP was practicing “genocide” in Xinjiang. A resolution sponsored by Dovile Sakaliene, a member of Parliament who was blacklisted by the CCP, was “supported by three-fifths of Lithuanian parliament members,” according to Reuters. The non-binding resolution called for “a U.N. investigation of internment camps and to ask the European Commission to review relations with Beijing.”

On May 22, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis expressed, in a statement, Lithuania’s decision to withdraw from Beijing’s “17+1” initiative, a move that embarrassed the CCP.

The “17+1” platform, which became “16+1,” was launched by the CCP in 2012, initially to intensify Beijing’s cooperation with 11 EU member states and five Balkan countries. In 2019, Greece joined the initiative, which was then renamed “17+1.”

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese leader Xi Jinping gives a speech at a press conference after the Belt and Road Forum at the China National Convention Center at the Yanqi Lake venue in Beijing, China, on April 27, 2019. (Wang Zhao/Getty Images)

In the future, for the sake of saving face (avoiding humiliation), the CCP may absorb other European countries into the initiative and maintain the “17+1” number. However, the CCP may face additional problems if there are any conflicts of interest between the newly-joined parties and the original Central and Eastern European countries.

Another European country standing up against the CCP is the UK.

On April 22, the British Parliament declared Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang a “genocide.”

According to a statement from the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), the UK’s move “is the latest in a series of coordinated actions by IPAC members.” The IPAC (Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China) “is an international cross-party group of legislators working towards reform on how democratic countries approach China.”

Miriam Lexmann, the Slovakian member serving on the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, was also placed on the CCP’s blacklist of sanctions in March, and she is also a member of IPAC.

Other European members of IPAC who have supported the UK’s declaration of the CCP’s genocide in Xinjiang include Italian IPAC member Andrea Delmastro Delle Vedove, Belgian IPAC member Samuel Cogolati, and IPAC members Margarete Bause and Gyde Jensen from Germany.

Misjudgment 4:

Beijing imposes heavy-handed sanctions against the European Council’s Political and Security Committee.

Another misjudgment is the CCP Foreign Ministry’s announcement on March 22 that the Political and Security Committee (PSC) of the European Council is a sanctioned entity.

The European Council “sets the EU’s policy agenda,” according to its official website, and “the members of the European Council are the heads of state or government of the 27 EU member states, the European Council President, and the President of the European Commission.” “The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy also takes part in European Council meetings when foreign affairs issues are discussed.”

The PSC is “responsible for the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CSFP) and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP),” and it is “composed of member states’ ambassadors based in Brussels and is chaired by the representatives from the European External Action Service.” Its roles include: monitoring the international situation, recommending strategic approaches and policy options to the Council; providing guidance to the Military Committee, the Politico-Military Group, and the Committee for Civilian Aspects of Crisis Management, and ensuring political control and strategic direction of crisis management operations.

By imposing sanctions on this body, the CCP is in fact sanctioning the decision-makers of the EU’s common foreign and security policies. The PSC will continue to draft EU policies related to the CCP in the future, whether the CCP likes it or not. In the current political climate, the PSC is unlikely to be the first to back down from the CCP.

More seriously, if the CCP were to announce that it would ban the diplomats in this organization from entering China, it would end up in an awkward situation in its relations with Europe because of the importance of these individuals in their country’s diplomatic system, a situation that could be described as devastating to China-Europe relations.

It is foreseeable that Beijing will make appropriate adjustments to its future European policy, otherwise, relations between China and Europe will go downhill rapidly. The CCP is neither willing nor ready to let the EU become another rival alongside the United States. To this end, the CCP has signaled it is softening up.

The April 29 issue of the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported a cool-down on the sanctions.

“But there has been little indication since of how the Chinese restrictions apply,” reported the SCMP. “Diplomatic sources say Chinese officials have tried to downplay the significance of its sanctions and tried to prove the policies were less forceful than they appear.”

Some European diplomatic insiders know this well.

“We have stopped inquiring as it would force the Chinese side to define it,” a source told SCMP.

Linyi Li is senior editor and commentator at the Chinese Epoch Times focused on China and international affairs. Prior to this he was a journalist in Ottawa, Canada, focused on Parliament Hill news.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Li Linyi
Li Linyi
Linyi Li is senior editor and commentator at the Chinese Epoch Times focused on China and international affairs. Prior to this he was a journalist in Ottawa, Canada, focused on Parliament Hill news.