(CNN)This year has left the European Union very confused over what to do about China. At the start of the year, the two parties hoped to formalize their economic and strategic partnership at a landmark summit in Leipzig, hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, marking a historic breakthrough in China-EU relations.
The Covid-19 pandemic has meant that instead of a red-carpet welcome from Germany, the other 26 EU member states and Brussels’ top figures, Chinese President Xi Jinping will instead have to settle for a video conference with Merkel and the Presidents of the EU Commission and Council.
“Obviously having a video call with just three leaders is a pretty lame consolation prize for China. We don’t even know if there will be a final communiqué,” said Steven Blockmans, acting director of the Centre for European Policy Studies.
Most long-term observers of EU-China relations agree that 2020 has been a bit of a disaster in that sphere. It hasn’t just been China’s initial poor handling of a pandemic that began in its borders that have damaged ties; Europe’s most senior politicians have been forced to “think carefully about what kind of geopolitical actor China is trying to become,” said an EU source.
“In our view, China has used the fact that so much of the world is distracted by the virus to accelerate its objectives in places like Hong Kong with the security law, its crackdown on the Uyghurs and international provocation,” said the source.
Beijing sparked outrage earlier this year when it imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong that bans secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. And it has also been criticized for the imprisonment since 2015 of as many as 2 million Muslim-majority Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities, according to US State Department estimates, in enormous re-education camps in Xinjiang, as part of a region-wide crackdown by Beijing.
Chinese officials have long defended the crackdown in Xinjiang as necessary to tackle extremism and in line with Chinese law and international practice.
Concern over China’s behavior and how reliable a partner it can be for Europe is not only felt at a Brussels level. “2020 has definitely led to member states finding China more disagreeable,” said a European diplomat who has worked on China relations in the past year. Our view is that China is less interested in developing a truly equal partnership with Europe than (it is with) trying to replace Western democracy with its own political system and eat our economies from the inside.”
The low point of 2020 came last month when Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, embarked on a trip around Europe to meet key figures ahead of Monday’s virtual summit. Instead of being greeted with the warmth Chinese delegates have become accustomed to, however, he got an earful.
“To my mind, it was a diplomatic disaster. Most notably in Germany, where he was reprimanded over threatening a Czech politician for visiting Taiwan, urged to scrap the security law in Hong Kong and didn’t even get to meet Merkel,” said Blockmans. “Throughout the trip, Hong Kong, the plight of the Uyghurs, Chinese propaganda over the virus kept coming up. It’s the opposite of what you want to happen on a diplomatic trip.”