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Embarrassing no-shows at China’s summit are a sign Europe is charting a new course

So what would you call the 17 + 1 minus six? An embarrassment, at the very least, when six of the European leaders stayed away from the latest summit.

It “looked decidedly like the 11 + 1,” said Politico’s Stuart Lau, “when half of the 12 EU national leaders invited to the club failed to show up to pay homage to Chinese President Xi Jinping. It’s a stinging diplomatic setback for Xi.” Even the lure of access to China’s coronavirus vaccines failed to impress. And they didn’t even have to make the effort of travelling to the summit – it was held on video link.

The central and eastern European leaders have felt increasingly let down by Beijing’s failure to deliver. And some of the promises that were delivered have failed to satisfy. A $US750 million ($953 million) loan to build a Belt and Road highway in tiny Montenegro is being blamed for the county’s national debt blowout to 80 per cent of GDP.

Its president, Milo Djukanovic, went to Beijing a few days before the summit to complain to a gathering of Chinese investors by quoting strategic aphorisms from ancient China’s Sun Tzu, according to The South China Morning Post: “If there is no skill in planning, it is difficult to achieve, and if there is no skill in planning, it will fail.”

Access to the Chinese market was another sore point for several. Polish President Andrzej Duda said his country was “dissatisfied” with the speed of China’s market opening to farm produce.

And while China is a formidable presence in Europe, the snub by the leaders of Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia is just one of many indicators of a growing European wariness of Beijing.

A threshold moment was the European Commission’s 2019 formal designation of China as a “systemic rival”. Still, Europe was reluctant to abandon its collective dream of Chinese money as the source of its future prosperity.

European ambiguity was on display in March 2019, shortly after the designation of China as a “systemic rival”. Xi Jinping flew to Paris and, after a champagne toast with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, then-president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and French President Emmanuel Macron, he tested their seriousness.

Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Xi Jinping and Jean-Claude Junker had a telling exchange in 2019.

Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Xi Jinping and Jean-Claude Junker had a telling exchange in 2019. Credit:AP

Did the Europeans really mean it, calling China a “systemic rival”, Xi wanted to know? As The Wall Street Journal reported it, first “Merkel demurred with a compliment for Mr Xi, saying the language showed Europe recognised China’s growing strength and influence”. Next, “Juncker cut the tension with a joke about the EU’s inability to agree on what China was”, said the Journal. But Macron was blunt. It’s true, the French President said. You are a rival. Within weeks, a French naval ship sailed through the Taiwan Straits in defiance of Xi’s wishes.

Since then, Europe has become more like Macron, less like Merkel. The pandemic, and China’s conduct, hardened mounting suspicion of Beijing. The percentage of people saying they had “no trust in Xi Jinping to do the right thing in world affairs” across six European nations grew by between 9 per cent and 21 per cent in a Pew poll published last October. The total with no trust in Xi now stood at 70 per cent in the Netherlands, 78 in Germany and 80 in France. “If 2019 was the year when Europeans began having serious doubts about Beijing’s geopolitical intentions, 2020 may go down in history as the moment they turned against China in defiance,” wrote Andreas Kluth, former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global.

“Because China, by trying to capitalise on the pandemic with a stunningly unsophisticated propaganda campaign, inadvertently showed Europeans its cynicism,” he wrote for Bloomberg. For example, in France when the Chinese embassy published a wild accusation that French retirement homes leave old people to die. Or in Italy when Chinese sockpuppets insinuated that the virus had originated in Europe. Or in Germany when Chinese diplomats urged government officials to heap public praise on China.

Under its new, tougher stance, the EU is shutting China out of its signature new research initiative, Horizon Europe, which aims to lift EU science spending by 50 per cent to some 100 billion euros ($153 billion) between now and 2027.

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The EU aims to exclude nations that don’t share “EU values”, according to Maria Cristina Russo, director for international co-operation in research and innovation at the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU. Similarly, the commission is drawing up guidelines to limit foreign interference in universities and research institutes. Governments increasingly are challenging China’s Huawei, too.

But what about the big news event of just a couple of months ago, when the EU signed its long-awaited Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China? That agreement is yet to be ratified by the European Parliament, and it’s meeting resistance. Some members are critical of China’s conduct in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Reinhard Bütikofer, chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China, said that “even the most fundamental research cannot just ignore geopolitical implications because co-operation and interdependence can be weaponised and is being weaponised as we speak”.

And across the channel, a former part of the EU, Britain, too is hardening its stance against the Chinese Communist Party’s policies. Public opinion is again leading the way. A new poll by the British Foreign Policy Group finds that 79 per cent of people named China a potential security threat, just behind Russia. London is now banning Huawei and demanding UN inspectors be given access to China’s Xinjiang province.

Europeans increasingly are turning away from Xi and his Belt and Road to find their own way.

Peter Hartcher is international editor.

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