Dec 5, 2022 - World

U.S. and EU positions on China are converging, top official says

Illustration of the EU stars arranged as a no sign over a map of China.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

The EU and U.S. positions on China have converged, due in part to Beijing's growing assertiveness and burgeoning partnership with Russia, according to Stefano Sannino, secretary-general of the EU’s foreign policy arm.

Why it matters: The EU declared Beijing a "systemic rival" in 2019, but European leaders have been slower than their U.S. counterparts to shift their focus from economic opportunities to security concerns. Today though, Sannino said, Brussels and Washington have reached a common assessment of the challenges posed by China — though not always a shared approach to addressing them.

Driving the news: One factor pushing the U.S. and EU closer together has been China's "new friendship" with Russia, particularly since the invasion of Ukraine, Sannino said.

  • "We have in front of us a different world compared with what we had one year ago," Sannino said. "We do not have all the elements of the new equation, but certainly it’s something that is changing, somehow, the landscape."
  • Sannino said the China-Russia nexus was a primary focus of the fourth high-level U.S.-EU Dialogue on China on Thursday and Friday, which the veteran Italian diplomat led alongside Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.

Flashback: For years, the EU's focus in dealing with China was maintaining a level playing field for European companies, Sannino said.

  • “Now it has become much broader," due in part to the growing assertiveness of Chinese leaders who have made clear they want to reshape the world order to suit their interests, Sannino said.
  • The EU is attempting to reduce reliance on China in areas ranging from rare-earth minerals to 5G infrastructure. After last week's talks, the U.S. and EU also released a joint statement raising concerns about China's human rights abuses, "provocations" toward Taiwan, and "economic coercion."

State of play: EU leaders have also raised concerns about the idea of "decoupling" from China, or getting caught up in a U.S.-China confrontation. The Biden administration's efforts to cut China off from advanced semiconductor technology and boost U.S. industry to compete with China also risked tensions with Europe.

  • Meanwhile, the Biden administration's efforts to cut China off from advanced semiconductor technology and boost U.S. industry to compete with China have created tensions with Europe.
  • Sannino warned against responses to China that were also "discriminatory" toward the EU — an allusion to U.S. subsidies under the Inflation Reduction Act that don't apply to EU firms — and said "the jury is still out" on President Biden’s export controls on semiconductor exports to China.

Still, Sannino said after last week's talks that the U.S. and EU are increasingly speaking the same language on China, and that "there was no kind of pressure to take a certain decision, to say yes or no, with us or not with us."

  • Yes, but: The U.S. is reportedly pressuring the Netherlands — home to the world's leading producer of chipmaking tools, ASML — to go along with its export controls.

The big picture: Sannino spoke to Axios shortly after European Council President Charles Michel met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also recently visited Beijing, and French President Emmanuel Macron intends to go early next year.

  • The intense criticism Scholz faced at home for traveling to Beijing with a delegation of business leaders underscored the growing skepticism toward an economy-first approach to China.
  • However, EU-China trade hit a record high last year, and is increasingly important at a time when Europe is facing severe economic headwinds.
  • The other side: Xi has urged the EU to view China "independently," rather than going along with U.S. policy.

The bottom line: "The point here is not ostracizing China," Sannino told Axios. Brussels has to strike the right balance, he said, "not to be nasty, but not to be naive."

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