EU-China Weekly Review
Dear readers,

In this issue of the EU-China Weekly Review, we cover the following topics:
  1. China retaliates to EU’s sanction on Xinjiang human rights violations
  2. Chinese Embassy in France enters a diplomatic row over its combative style 
  3. EU Commission and NATO discuss China with US Secretary of State Blinken
  4. Chinese espionage operations in Finland and Estonia highlight security challenges
EU-China Weekly Review is compiled by MERICS Analyst Grzegorz Stec. Share story tips to or via Twitter: @grzestec.

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China retaliates to EU’s sanction on Xinjiang human rights violations

The EU Foreign Affairs Council released a list of individuals and entities sanctioned under EU global human rights sanctions regime on March 22. The list included four PRC and CCP officials who oversee Xinjiang-related policies and a section of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau that manages detention centers in the province. The move was coordinated with Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, who all made similar announcements.

What you need to know
  • Beijing responded with retaliatory sanctions on the same day targeting ten individuals (five MEPs, Dutch, Belgian, and Lithuanian MPs and two researchers) and four entities (The Political and Security Committee of the Council of the European Union, the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament, MERICS and the Alliance of Democracies Foundation in Denmark). In the sanction’s announcement, China described the retaliation as a response to the EU’s alleged interference in China’s internal affairs on basis of “nothing but lies and disinformation.” 
  • Echoing the messaging of the Chinese MFA, the Global Times released a series of publications that praised China’s “swift counterattack” to the EU’s “arrogance” and “weaponizing human rights” while urging the bloc to reverse its course.
  • China’s retaliation was criticized by the EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, and multiple EU capitals – including German and French MFAs and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Conversely, the Hungarian MFA called the EU’s sanctions on China “pointless, self-aggrandizing and harmful.” Multiple Chinese Ambassadors were summoned by MFAs of their host countries to provide explanations regarding the retaliatory sanctions.
  • The MEPs involved in deliberations over the potential ratification of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) cancelled a meeting scheduled for March 23. Major political groupings at the European Parliament such as S&D or Renew Europe signaled that any progress on potential ratification of CAI would require China lifting its sanctions. The European People’s Party, the EU’s largest political grouping, would like discussions on CAI to continue. They view the issue as separate from the tensions over human rights sanctions.

Quick take

China’s retaliation appears to have two key motivations. The first one is linked to China’s self-perception, the pride of a re-emerging power and the related need to project an image of both domestic and international might. Another goal is to prevent the European stakeholders from developing a more assertive and united China policy by dividing them over the perceived costs of angering Beijing. China especially wants to avoid a united European stance that would involve deep cooperation with like-minded partners such as the United States or Japan. 

The fact that Beijing decided to move forward with the retaliation just a day before the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, visited Brussels shows that it was confident of its position. The outcome of the European Council taking place on March 25-26 that will include a review of the EU-China Strategic Outlook’s Action Plan will be an initial indicator of the EU's path forward, especially under the new circumstances.

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Chinese Embassy in France enters a diplomatic row over its combative style 

Over the course of last week, the Chinese Embassy in France engaged in combative exchanges with French politicians, researchers and the media. In the process, the Embassy explicitly endorsed a confrontational, wolf warrior diplomacy style.

What you need to know
  • The Embassy was involved in two disputes with:

    • Alain Richard, a French senator, and the head of the Senate’s Taiwan Friendship Group planned to visit Taiwan this summer. The Embassy urged Richard in a private letter in February to cancel the trip. The matter escalated into a public debate, in which the French MFA supported the senator’s right to make his own decision. To which the Embassy responded that such a visit would be met with a retaliation.
    • Antoine Bondaz, an outspoken China researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research, was called a “little rascal” and a “crazy hyena” by the Chinese Embassy. The move sparked a discussion in French media on China’s attempts to influence researchers.
  • In response to the criticism, the Embassy issued a long statement on March 21, about freedom of expression. The text focused on the recent rows and made the case for wolf warrior diplomacy and proclaimed that the days of China’s “lamb diplomacy” are “over and are not coming back!” The following day the French MFA responded with a statement opposing the “insults and threats against parliamentarians and a French researcher” and summoned the Ambassador Lu Shaye.

Quick take

The Embassy laid down its position and the logic of the combative diplomacy style in a dedicated statement. Chinese diplomats are to safeguard China’s interests and image by applying a differentiated communication style – being amicable towards “friends” (朋友), but “struggle” (斗争) against those they consider “wicked” (恶人). The approach, however, varies between different Chinese Embassies in Europe. For instance, the Embassy in Sweden follows this logic, while the Embassies in Brussels, Germany or in Poland maintain a less confrontational relation with their host countries’ governments and public opinion. 

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EU Commission and NATO discuss China with US Secretary of State Blinken

US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is visiting Brussels between March 23-24 to meet with NATO and the European Commission. His arrival follows China’s retaliation to the EU’s human rights sanctions and the US-China meeting in Alaska.
  • On March 23, Blinken participated in a summit of NATO foreign ministers, where he signaled the interest of the Biden administration in pursuing a collective and collaborative approach to security. He also highlighted the need for cooperation on protecting the rules-based international order “challenged by authoritarian powers like Russia and China.”
  • On the same day, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, announced that President Joe Biden will join EU leaders during the Council’s summit on Thursday to discuss the future of Transatlantic relations. It will be the first meeting between EU27 and a sitting US president since 2009. On March 24, together with High Representative Borrell, Blinken is expected to relaunch the EU-US high-level dialogue on China that was established last year.

Quick take

The events of the last week – including joint Sino-Russian opposition to the human rights sanctions – provide momentum for potential deepening of Transatlantic cooperation on China. We will assess their tangible impact on the EU’s China policy and the China-related outcomes of the upcoming European Council in our EU-China Briefing next week. Click here to subscribe.

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Chinese espionage operations in Finland and Estonia highlight security challenges

Finish and Estonian intelligence services released details on domestic Chinese espionage operations thwarted in the last few months.

What you need to know
  • On March 18, the Finnish Security and Intelligence Service identified the APT31 operation, with links to China, as perpetrators behind the hack into the Finnish Parliament’s network last fall. The cybersecurity companies define the APT31 as a nexus of cyberespionage actors who extract information useful to Chinese government and SOEs. The network breach compromised the security of multiple email accounts including those belonging to Finish MPs.
  • Last week, Estonia convicted Tarmo Kõuts, an Estonian scientist working on NATO maritime and submarine research, to three years in prison for espionage in the interest of China. Kõuts, who had clearances to access national and NATO-level intelligence, was recruited in 2018 by the Intelligence Bureau of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission, China’s military intelligence agency, and operated until his arrest in September last year. He reportedly received financial renumeration for passing anecdotes about his work.

Quick take

Cybersecurity challenges, technological espionage and disinformation operations are core security challenges posed by China in Europe. NATO 2030 analysis from November last year, suggests that those may be the key areas of China-related cooperation within the organization.

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About MERICS EU-China Weekly Review

The MERICS EU-China Weekly Review is compiled by MERICS Analyst Grzegorz Stec. Share story tips to Twitter: @grzestec

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