Axios China

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September 20, 2022

Welcome back to Axios China. Today, we're looking at Europe's tough new stance toward China, an interview with a Ukrainian member of parliament, Biden's Taiwan comments, and so much more.

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Today's newsletter is 1,816 words, a 7-minute read.

1 big thing: Europe turns on China

Illustration of the EU stars arranged as a no sign over a map of China.
Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Once skeptical of America's increasingly hostile stance toward China, the EU and its member states are adopting a cascade of new measures that are bringing their policies closer in line with those of the U.S.

Why it matters: Beijing's push for Europe to adopt "strategic autonomy" from the United States — in the hope the EU would maintain warmer ties with China — now looks like a moot point.

What's happening: Last week, the European Commission unveiled a proposed ban on products made with forced labor, after intense pressure from lawmakers and human rights activists concerned about forced labor in Xinjiang.

  • European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also criticized Chinese funding of European research institutions and announced a new "Defense of Democracy" package intended to scrutinize foreign funding of European academic institutions in order to "bring covert foreign influence and shady funding to light."
  • The U.S. implemented an import ban on all products made in Xinjiang earlier this year, and the Trump administration placed greater scrutiny on foreign funding in U.S. universities.

Zoom in: Germany is a key benchmark. Berlin was once a stalwart supporter of close trade ties with China, and thus it tended to avoid tension with Beijing. But Berlin now seems to have turned a major corner on issues from trade to human rights to direct military engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

  • Last week, Germany's Economy Minister Robert Habeck pledged "no more naivety" in Germany's trade with China. Habeck announced his team was working on a new economic policy to reduce dependence on China across key industries and closely scrutinize inbound investment from China, saying, "We cannot allow ourselves to be blackmailed."
  • The German Foreign Ministry also announced it was appointing a special representative to Pacific nations, where China's expanding influence has alarmed Australia and the United States.
  • In late August, Germany joined Exercise Pitch Black as a full participant for the first time. The set of military drills is held every other year off Australia's northern coast with air forces from as many as 17 countries, including the U.S., the U.K., France, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. The exercise's recent expansion has prompted questions about its potential role as a counter to China in the region.
  • The Chinese Communist Party-affiliated tabloid Global Times reported that some German media warned the country against joining an "anti-China alliance" in the Indo-Pacific.

Flashback: European nations were largely skeptical of the Trump administration's sharp rhetoric against China.

  • In December 2020, the European Union agreed to an investment deal with China that ignored concerns about forced labor in China's economy and would have strengthened economic ties between the bloc and China. That same year, by contrast, the Trump administration took more than 200 public actions to push back against Beijing and delink certain sectors of the U.S. and Chinese economies.
  • But a major turning point in the EU-China relationship occurred in March 2021. The EU levied sanctions on some Chinese officials for abuses in Xinjiang. Beijing retaliated by sanctioning EU members of parliament and others, and in May 2021, the European Parliament voted to freeze the investment deal.

The Europe-China relationship has plummeted since then.

  • China's "rock solid" support for Russia during its invasion of Ukraine soured the attitude of many Europeans toward Beijing.
  • A United Nations report published in late August warning of "serious human rights violations" and possible "crimes against humanity" in Xinjiang sparked harsh criticism from European leaders.

Yes, but: Trade ties between Europe and China are still strong, and the EU has emphasized that cooperation on climate change with China is crucial.

What to watch: Taipei is urging the EU to adopt sanctions that would deter China from invading Taiwan, Reuters reports.

Read the full story.

2. Ukrainian MP: "China is not our friend"

Photo illustration of Ukrainian MP Oleksandr Merezhko between a blue and gold graphic shapes
Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Archive of Oleksandr Merezhko

China's support for Russia during the war in Ukraine has disappointed many Ukrainians, Oleksandr Merezhko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, tells Axios in an interview.

Why it matters: Beijing has tried to both support Russia and convince Europe that it supports the principles of sovereignty and the rule of law. Ukrainians aren't buying it, Merezhko says.

Driving the news: Two members of the Ukrainian parliament joined the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China last week, the first Ukrainians to join the organization.

  • The group of lawmakers from 29 democratic countries shares concerns about the Chinese Communist Party's attempts to undermine democracy and human rights on the global stage.

What he's saying: "I have experienced living in the Soviet Union for 20 years. I know what it’s like to live in a totalitarian state, which tramples human rights and undermines the world order," Merezhko said. "To me, China is exactly like that, like the Soviet Union but more dangerous."

  • Merezhko says he realized "China is not our friend" after Chinese president Xi Jinping touted a "partnership without limits" with Russia. China amplifies Russian propaganda and has "done nothing at all" to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw his troops, Merezhko said.
  • "It’s an ally of our enemy. And [China] is a very cynical force, which absolutely doesn’t care about anything except for its own interests."

Taiwan, on the other hand, said Merezhko, proved to be a "true friend."

  • Taiwan implemented sanctions against Russia and gave substantial material support to Ukraine, and the Taiwanese parliament adopted a resolution in support of Ukraine.

Merezhko also emphasized that the Chinese government's repressive policies in Xinjiang are a matter of grave international concern.

  • "Genocide is a crime of crimes," Merezhko said. "It is a crime against all humankind. It is a crime against all countries. When China is committing genocide, it is also a crime against Ukraine."

The back story: Weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, Xi and Putin jointly announced their two countries' close partnership. The Chinese government has not criticized Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and it has subsequently reaffirmed its close relationship with Moscow.

  • But after last week's meeting with Xi, Putin said that China had "questions and concerns" about Ukraine.

3. Catch up quick

1. Xi Jinping met with Vladimir Putin in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit last week. Go deeper.

2. A U.S. carrier strike group will visit South Korea later this week for its first military drills with the South Korean navy near the peninsula in five years. Go deeper.

3. China relaxed entry guidelines for some foreign tourists, who have largely been blocked from entering the country since the pandemic began, Reuter reports.

4. Ecuador's President Guillermo Lasso said his country's interests are best served by "balanced" relations with the U.S. and China. Go deeper.

  • Lasso is working to finalize a free trade agreement with China within the next few months.

5. Indian residents living near a border region claimed by both Beijing and New Delhi have accused the Indian government of ceding part of the disputed territory to China, The Guardian reports.

4. Biden: U.S. forces would defend Taiwan if China's military invaded

Soldiers lower the Taiwanese flag during a ceremony at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan, in August. Photo: Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Soldiers lower the Taiwanese flag during a ceremony at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan, in August. Photo: Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Biden again vowed in an interview Sunday that American forces would defend Taiwan if China's military invaded the self-governing island — prompting the White House to stress that U.S. policy hasn't changed on the matter, Axios' Rebecca Falconer writes.

Driving the news: Biden said during an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" that aired Sunday that U.S. forces would defend the democratically run island "if in fact there was an unprecedented attack."

  • The interviewer asked, “So unlike Ukraine, to be clear, sir, U.S. forces — U.S. men and women — would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion?” Biden replied, "Yes."
  • A White House official said after the interview that the U.S. government's long-running policy of "strategic ambiguity" on Taiwan had not changed, per CBS News.

The big picture: Biden has on several occasions said American forces would defend Taiwan from a Chinese military attack.

  • Each time, White House officials stressed that U.S. policy that considers Taiwan as part of "one China" hadn't changed.

Context: Under this policy, the U.S. opposes any attempts to change the island's self-governing, democratic status by force.

The bottom line: "A clearer statement of U.S. policy change could not be made," my Axios colleague Jonathan Swan tweeted.

5. What I'm reading

Today, I'm juxtaposing two recent articles — one in support of U.S. strategic ambiguity on Taiwan and one against it.

Keep it: Taiwan doesn’t need a formal U.S. security guarantee (Foreign Policy)

  • Ivan Kanapathy, former National Security Council director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia during the Trump administration, argues that a clear U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan would be an invitation for China to test red lines and likely erode U.S. credibility unless it responded to every provocation.
  • "Furthermore, a U.S. commitment would likely stall much-needed defense reforms in Taiwan, while having no real impact on Beijing’s invasion calculus."

Scrap it: U.S. Strategic ambiguity over Taiwan must end (Project Syndicate)

  • Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued in this April article that strategic ambiguity only worked when the U.S. had far greater military strength than China.
  • "But those days are over. The US policy of ambiguity toward Taiwan is now fostering instability in the Indo-Pacific region, by encouraging China to underestimate US resolve, while making the government in Taipei unnecessarily anxious."

6. Earthquakes shake Taiwan

An aerial view shows the collapsed Kaoliao bridge in eastern Taiwan's Hualien county on September 19, 2022,
An aerial view shows the collapsed Kaoliao bridge in eastern Taiwan's Hualien county on Sept. 19, following an earthquake on Sept. 18. Photo: Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

One person died and about 150 were reported injured after a series of strong earthquakes shook Taiwan over the weekend.

  • The strongest, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake on Sunday, brought down bridges and buildings, damaged roads, and overturned rail cars near the epicenter in southern Taiwan.

A personal view: This was my first time experiencing an earthquake in Taiwan.

  • During the most powerful of the series of tremors, I was in an elevator in a high-rise building in Taipei, about 170 miles away from the epicenter. The elevator swung around and creaked a lot. I've never been more grateful for the ding announcing I'd arrived at my floor.
  • Taiwan is located on active fault lines, and so the Taiwanese have learned to live with earthquakes. People in my building exchanged knowing half-smiles as windows rattled and the ground swayed.

Go deeper: Watch this video taken atop a mountain in Taiwan as the earthquake struck.

7. 1 fun thing: Wacky ice cream flavor

An ice cream bar in Taiwan flavored with Sichuan peppercorn, cheese, and milk tea
Photo: Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian/Axios

Last week, I set out to try the wildest ice cream flavor I could find. It really wasn't a contest, as red bean and white grape flavors have nothing on Sichuan peppercorn cheese milk tea — a combination of flavors that somehow exist in one ice cream bar.

  • I have to give the product manufacturers credit for honest advertising: The packaging touts the ice cream bar's "unique recipe."

The verdict: It was actually good. Really! I couldn't taste the peppercorn, and mostly what I got were notes of tea and caramel, with a hint of cream cheese.

A big thank you to Alison Snyder for edits and Sheryl Miller for copy edits.