The EU’s top diplomat has told the bloc’s foreign affairs ministers that they must not get caught up in US-China rivalry as they re-evaluate their diplomatic and trade relations with the world's second-biggest economy due to rising geopolitical tension and Beijing's increased affirmativeness.
This would involve lowering the EU’s dependencies on Chinese industry, particularly when it comes to semiconductors and artificial intelligence, while pressing Beijing to push Russia to withdraw from Ukraine, according to a letter sent by Josep Borrell to the bloc’s 27 foreign affairs ministers' meeting in Stockholm on Friday.
The EU must remain strongly engaged with China due to its geopolitical significance, wrote Mr Borrell.
“China is here to stay,” the Spanish diplomat argued.
“Unlike Russia, China is a real systemic actor. Russia represents 1 per cent of the world's gross national product, while China is approaching 20 per cent and its GNP will be the highest in the world in only a few years.”
Mr Borrell warned that China was viewed as a counterweight to the West and, therefore, Europe, by many countries.
“Most countries … will seek to strengthen their own room for manoeuvre without picking sides,” he wrote.
The letter, which is not public but was seen by The National, may signal that the West is attempting to contain tension with China.
“The EU should not subscribe to an idea of a zero-sum game whereby there can only be one winner, in a binary contest between the US and China,” wrote Mr Borrell.
Relations with China and the war in Ukraine are on the agenda of a meeting of European foreign affairs ministers in Stockholm on Friday.
It comes after reports that the European Commission suggested last week that EU countries place sanctions on Chinese companies for selling products to Russia, supporting its war effort in Ukraine.
China responded by warning this would be “highly dangerous”.
The proposal, which is part of an 11th round of sanctions against Russia, is currently under discussion by EU ambassadors in Brussels. It reportedly caused alarm in certain member states including Germany.
Yet some of the bloc's foreign ministers told reporters in Stockholm that they thought that Mr Borrell was not being firm enough with China.
“The paper in principle is not bad,” said Lithuania's Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis.
But he said he wanted Brussels to talk to China “from a position of strength.”
“We also have instruments, we also have arrangements that we possess that could be used as leverage on changing China's position on one case or another,” he said.
“I suggest that we learn from the mistakes we've [made] with Russia and do not repeat them,” said Mr Landsbergis.
Baltic countries are among the most hawkishly anti-Russia in the bloc due to their land border with Russia and its ally Belarus.
Most ministers agreed that Europe needed to adopt a unified position towards China.
“Today we will have a significant important discussion on China, which, as a rising power, poses challenges, opportunities,” said Czech Foreign Affairs Minister Jan Lipavsky. “And we, as [the] EU, need to find a clarified way how to approach that.”
Wopke Hoekstra, the Foreign Minister of the Netherlands, said that “there were multiple layers” to the EU-China relationship.
“What we seek is partnership, but we cannot be naive, and we also have to be explicit that domestic interference is something that we’ll never allow,” he said.
The Dutch intelligence service said last month that China was the greatest threat to Dutch economic security.
In late 2022, the Netherlands opened an investigation into reports that China was running illegal police stations on its territory to monitor dissidents.
The EU has repeatedly dismissed Chinese claims that it is neutral in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and said it is, in reality, siding with Moscow.
In his letter, Mr Borrell reaffirmed that the issue remains highly important for Brussels.
“The relationship between China and the European Union will be critically affected if China does not push Russia to withdraw from Ukraine,” he wrote.
There has been renewed attention on EU-China relations following the visit this week of China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang to several countries including France, Germany and the Netherlands.
The US also used Mr Qin’s visit to engage Chinese officials on European soil.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met China’s top diplomat Wang Yi in Vienna on Wednesday and Thursday for “candid, substantive and constructive discussions”.
The White House said they discussed “global and regional security issues, Russia’s war against Ukraine and cross-strait issues, among other topics”.
The conversation set the stage for a future call between President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, Bloomberg reported, and is widely viewed as part of a US strategy to resume relations after the shooting of an alleged Chinese spy balloon in February.