China Courts The EU To Grow Economic Ties And Deflect Criticism On Human Rights

On July 5th, 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted a video call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. The leaders discussed the opportunity of strengthening the relationship between the European Union and the People’s Republic of China. Topics included partnerships related to the global COVID-19 vaccination effort, climate change, and reestablishing Sino-European economic relations. While no hard decisions were made during the call, many have speculated that Xi was deflecting attention away from the G7 Summit discussions related to China’s human rights abuses. Additionally, Xi may also be courting the EU to win economic advantage, given the recent increase of tensions between the United States and China.

The three-way call comes after the recent cancellation of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) deal, which would have given European companies greater access to Chinese markets. In May 2021, the EU halted the deal due to Chinese sanctions placed on EU politicians. Weeks later, June’s G7 Summit included discussions on Beijing’s human rights violations, specifically in the Xinjiang province. It has been well documented that China forcibly removes Uyghur Muslims from their homes and holds them in internment camps in Xinjiang, where they undergo physical and mental abuse along with forced labor. Often, many of the Uyghurs are held without any criminal record. China has downplayed these allegations, sometimes denying them outright. However, China has a long history of abusing human rights, such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, the invasion of Tibet in 1950, and the invasion of Vietnam in 1979. The CCP’s actions in Xinjiang are not unprecedented, and the EU has good reason to be concerned over them.

China’s persistence in establishing a connection with Europe could be opportunistic and connected to the growing distance in its relationship with the United States. China and the US have become economic, military, and political rivals over the course of the twenty-first century, especially during the Trump Presidency. Former President Trump’s foreign policy agenda imposed heavy tariffs on Chinese imports, designed to hurt Chinese manufacturing and boost American jobs. Even though the tariffs had a limited impact on its economy, China’s courtship of the EU may in part be a result of American nationalism and economic aggression, all to diversify and increase its trading partnerships. 

The United States’ reluctance to develop an amicable relationship with China is valid because of China’s unfair economic practices. For example, it is well known that China has manipulated its currency in the past, which was a subject of concern in a May 2019 report from the US Treasury department. The report stated plainly, “[The Department of] Treasury continues to have significant concerns about China’s currency practices.” Additionally, the United States needs to take a more practical approach to deal with China, beyond provocative rhetoric. If the United States is serious about wanting to hold China accountable, it should reach out to the European Union to put additional pressure to end its internment camps in Xinjiang. China reached out to the EU hoping to gain access to their large market, but the EU could push the PRC to halt its human rights violations with the help of the United States, in exchange for a comprehensive trade deal. 

While President Xi’s invitation to European leaders is largely opportunistic, the EU should leverage its own position to pressure China on human rights and economic policy. Further, with new leadership in Washington, the European Union has an opportunity to align closer with the United States to apply additional pressure for Chinese reform. China should not be underestimated, and it will take strong alliances in the west to balance its economic and political power.