China in focus as EU leaders prepare for key summit

The heads of the 27 member states are set to meet in Brussels for a two-day summit this week during which they will discuss foreign policy issues on Friday, including the bloc’s China strategy.

In his invitation letter to the leaders, the EU Council chief, Charles Michel, said that the summit will be an opportunity to “reconfirm” the bloc’s united stance towards Beijing.But, the 27 members of the European Union often struggle with unanimity when it comes to dealing with a wide array of internal issues, from migration to subsidies.

It is no different in foreign policy: How the EU plans to deal with China has been gnawing at the bloc over the past few years.

Grzegorz Stec, analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Brussels, told Al Jazeera that policy divergences persist among member states regarding China.

“Some view the economic security as the key issue, while others see Beijing’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the key order of the day. These differences in priorities, at times, lead to frictions,” he said.

Hardened stance
During the past few years, the EU’s stance on China has hardened for a number of reasons, including differences over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the rise of China as a tech and economic power – viewed by some EU countries as threatening, Beijing’s military actions in the Taiwan Strait and most recently, China’s lack of condemnation of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

To some diplomats in the West, that China downplayed the mutiny of Russia’s Wagner mercenary forces over the weekend reflected the country’s strong alliance with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin – an alliance that has made them wary of Beijing.

Amid the geopolitical tensions with China and Russia, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said before a trip to Beijing in March that the bloc should focus on “de-risking” with China, rather than “de-coupling”.

Since 2019, the EU has referred to China as a “systemic rival” and “economic competitor”.Von der Leyen revealed the EU’s plans to “enhance economic security” last week, saying that while “global integration and open economies have been a force for good”, the EU also has to be “clear-eyed about a world that has become more contested and geopolitical”.

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