China misreads the room in Munich

FEBRUARY 20, 2023

Noah

by Noah Barkin, GMF

China’s post-pandemic charm offensive with Europe was supposed to shift into overdrive this past week.

Instead, a visit by China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, showed just how challenging it will be for Beijing to get its relationship with Europe back on track, at a time when China’s ties with Russia appear to be deepening and those with Washington are sinking to new depths.

Wang’s appearance at the Munich Security Conference, sandwiched between trips to Paris, Rome, Budapest, and Moscow, was the clearest illustration to date of the diplomatic dilemma China faces as it emerges from three years of self-imposed COVID isolation, the last of which clouded by the war in Ukraine.

Wang was speaking to an audience in Munich that had spent the previous 24 hours celebrating transatlantic unity on Ukraine. And yet, in a misreading of the room, he went on the offensive against Washington, warning (in a thinly veiled reference to the Biden administration) that “some forces” were keen for the war to drag on and dismissing the White House response to the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon as “hysterical”.

As he spoke, China’s foreign ministry was cranking up the propaganda machine in response to a train derailment in the US state of Ohio and the publication of a dubious report from American journalist Seymour Hersh that claimed the Biden administration and the Norwegian government conspired to blow up the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea last year.

The Europeans have their own doubts about the US handling of the Chinese balloon incident. The decision to shoot several unidentified objects out of the sky with missiles in the days that followed the downing of the balloon off the coast of South Carolina was not a good look for the administration.

European capitals are also uncomfortable with some of the more hawkish rhetoric toward China that is coming out of Washington these days, notably in relation to Taiwan. European officials view the new House of Representatives’ Select Committee on China with trepidation and Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s planned trip to Taipei as an ill-timed provocation.

But China should know better than to try to woo Europe by bashing the United States. And Beijing should be aware that the torrent of disinformation spread by official Chinese channels in recent weeks—a phenomenon that a recent European External Action Service report described in detail—will only deepen the divide between Europe and China.

In recent months, after Beijing scrapped its zero-COVID policies and resumed in-person meetings with European leaders, the extent of this divide has become clear, triggering the charm offensive. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and European Council President Charles Michel were invited to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. And a new Chinese ambassador, Fu Cong, was sent to Brussels with a mission to repair ties damaged by years of wolf warrior diplomacy, sanctions, economic coercion, differences on human rights, and China’s equivocations on the war in Ukraine.

This spring, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni are expected to travel to Beijing. Wang’s trips to Paris and Rome last week were aimed in part at preparing the groundwork for those visits.

In past years, China had success winning Europe over with concessions on process. It is in this context that one should understand the relaunch of a human rights dialogue between Brussels and Beijing, which took place last week for the first time in years, and China’s aborted plan to send the governor of its Xinjiang region to Europe for talks. 

But Europe is in a different place now. It is demanding substance from Beijing, above all a readiness to play a more constructive role in Ukraine. There were no signs of that in Munich, beyond Wang’s promise that China would soon present a position paper for a political resolution of the conflict. No serious European policymakers believe this will yield positive change in Beijing’s approach to the conflict.  

On the contrary, when it comes to the China-Russia relationship, the risk appears greater that the coming year will bring negative surprises. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued in Munich a series of public and private warnings that China is considering providing weapons and ammunition to Russia. 

In the first year of the Ukraine conflict, China was careful not to cross the reddest of Western red lines. Were that to change, the damage to Europe-China relations would be immense.

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