While China doubles down on its strategic partnership with Russia, Europe is looking for allies elsewhere in Asia.
Next week, European Council President Charles Michel and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are expected to travel to Tokyo to co-host an EU-Japan summit, two diplomats said on condition of anonymity, confirming a Japanese media report. This will be the first time the duo has flown to East Asia together since they took the helm of the EU shortly before the COVID-19 outbreak.
Last week, Olaf Scholz made his first trip to Asia since becoming German chancellor and skipped China, heading instead to Japan, a departure from his predecessor Angela Merkel’s preference for cultivating personal ties with the Communist leadership in Beijing.
Days before, von der Leyen attended the Raisina Dialogue, a key foreign policy event in India, where she made explicit warnings about the “no limits” partnership between Beijing and Moscow.
The upcoming Czech presidency of the Council of the EU, which starts in June, plans to host a series of events with Indo-Pacific partners, even as the Russian war on Ukraine takes up most of the political energy in Europe.
In short, an unexpected war on European soil is prompting the bloc to take a fresher look at China — which happens to be Russia’s seemingly unbreakable partner.
For two decades, China reaped enormous benefits after joining the World Trade Organization. Numerous European multinational corporations treat China as the market and profit engine. Despite recent calls from President Xi Jinping to focus more on domestic innovation and consumption, foreign trade — especially with the EU and the U.S. — still accounts for an outsize role in China’s economic development. Indeed, European governments had largely been on the side of their businesses that favored going deeper into the world’s second-largest economy, paying lip service to warnings about national security threats, cyberattacks, and human rights violations from the U.S. and advocacy groups.
The war in Ukraine changed the equation.
Both U.S. President Joe Biden and the Commission’s von der Leyen warned Beijing of “consequences” and “reputational risks” should it help Russia circumvent sanctions or provide it with weapons. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss went further, saying last week: “By talking about the rise of China as inevitable we are doing China’s work for it. In fact, their rise isn’t inevitable. They will not continue to rise if they don’t play by the rules.”
The fast-hardening rhetoric on China hasn’t gone unnoticed in the business sector. With Western companies cut off from Russia, concerns are rising in the business community in China, especially as Beijing makes little effort to distance itself from what looks increasingly like a pariah state. “The Germans did a survey about the impact the Ukraine war has on business in China,” said Jörg Wuttke, president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, saying that the survey “clearly indicated” that businesses would be prepared to put “everything on hold.”
“They say, ‘oh boy, we have this Russia situation, would China be the same?’” Wuttke said.
Tilt to Japan
As Scholz admitted, the choice of Japan as the first Asian destination since becoming German chancellor was “no coincidence.”
While he refrained from any direct criticism of China, Scholz highlighted the need for diversification on the part of German businesses. Ensuring supply chains are less dependent on individual countries, he added, is “a task that is more relevant than ever.” China will have had no problem working out who Scholz was talking about.
“We are against all ideas of decoupling,” Scholz said. “But one thing is clear: our companies and we ourselves will do everything we can to ensure that nobody is dependent on supply chains from one country at a time. That is the experience we have now had with the Ukraine crisis. It will take time, but will have to play a big role for us.”
Japan has been hailed as a close partner with the West since the war started. It became one of the few Asian countries (alongside South Korea and Singapore) to join in with the sanctions introduced by Europe and the U.S., while Scholz’s return flight also carried some aid donated by Japan for Ukraine.
When it comes to Japan’s handling of China, its chief regional foe, Tokyo by and large relies on U.S. security cooperation. For instance, it has conducted war games and joint military exercises with the U.S. in the event of a conflict with China over Taiwan, the Financial Times reported last year. Still, there’s a role for the EU to play.
“Even though they [Japan] realize that Europeans cannot make up for the alliance with the United States, it still serves, I think, as an additional assurance,” said Dietmar Schweisgut, former EU ambassador to Japan and to China.
That’s a far cry from the past, Schweisgut said, when Japan and Europe viewed the Euro-Atlantic and Asia-Pacific theaters, respectively, as largely irrelevant. “The friendship between China and Russia without limits and their stated commitment to work together to change the international order … led to the realization that a closer relationship between Japan, India and Europe is not just a luxury or something nice to have. It’s seen as a bit more indispensable than before.”
India, the swing state
The next few months will be crucial to see whether Europe could multitask by focusing on both Russia and China. “While dealing with the Ukraine war, [Europe] also has to continue to focus on its Indo-Pacific approach, because the future of the global order is not only decided in Ukraine,” said Janka Oertel, Asia chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
By some measures, though, India is more reminiscent of China than Japan. It’s defied Western pressure and abstained in United Nations votes condemning Russia’s war. It remains a massive importer of Russian arms. Human rights groups constantly voice concerns about the treatment of minorities.
Still, the U.S. considers India a key partner in its Indo-Pacific strategy, forming together with Australia and Japan the “Quad” security network, currently considered by Beijing’s strategists to be a top threat. After the humiliating “AUKUS” snub over a lucrative submarine deal, France has also sought to deepen naval ties with India.
During her visit to New Delhi, von der Leyen lashed out at China for its partnership with Russia, while hailing India as the world’s largest democracy and vowing to deepen trade ties. In a bid to convince India to ditch Russia, she added: “The outcome of the war will not only determine the future of Europe but also deeply affect the Indo-Pacific region and the rest of the world.”
One major issue in EU-India relations is the lack of a free-trade agreement. A previous, seven-year attempt to strike a deal resulted in a deadlock, though both sides are now trying to revive the talks. Yet thorny issues such as agriculture, standards and labor rights remain unresolved.
Like von der Leyen, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also visited India in recent weeks, where he focused on defense cooperation with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. At the press conference, Johnson had to defend the defense scheme when asked whether India might become a channel for Western arms to be smuggled into Russia.
In a symbolic move, India also decided to open a new embassy in Lithuania — the EU country currently targeted by Beijing’s trade embargo — after the Baltic state spent a decade lobbying for one.
Both Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are coming to Europe this week. Their ideas on China will surely reach receptive ears — but it remains to be seen if any action is taken as a result.
Hans von der Burchard contributed to this report.
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