EU not seeking ‘systematic confrontation’ as rival China grows

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European Union leaders have warned against being drawn into a confrontation with China and a breakdown in ties but said they would stand up for their principles and independence in relations with Beijing.

During a summit in Brussels on Friday, the 27-nation bloc held three hours of strategic talks on its approach to China as President Xi Jinping tightens his grip over an ever more assertive Beijing.

Torn between the desire to access China’s vast markets and condemnation of its rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, as well as aggressive policies in Hong Kong and towards Taiwan, the EU has struggled to fashion a cohesive stance towards Beijing.

“This discussion showed a very clear will to avoid being naive, but neither did we want to embark into a logic of systematic confrontation [with China],” summit host and EU Council President Charles Michel said on Friday.

Michel insisted the bloc has its “own model to develop” at a time of intensifying rivalry between China and the United States.

“We will always be firm in standing up to defend our principles, democracy, fundamental freedoms,” Michel said.

Since 2019, the EU has officially regarded China as a partner, an economic competitor as well as a systemic rival.

An EU foreign policy paper prepared for the summit stated that Beijing should now be thought of primarily as a competitor which is promoting “an alternative vision of the world order”.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Beijing was “continuing its mission to establish its dominance in East Asia and its influence globally”. She also warned about the close ties between China and Russia, despite the international condemnation of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

“These developments will affect the EU-China relationship,” von der Leyen said.

The EU is also keen to ensure it does not fall into a trap — as it did with Russia — of becoming dependent on China for critical raw materials and technologies.

“Obviously, we have to be very vigilant when it comes to dependencies. And we’ve learned our lesson,” von der Leyen said.

Responding to the comments by EU leaders, a spokesperson for China’s Mission to the EU said late on Friday that the “deeply ideology-orientated remarks” reflected the views of some people who “cling on to bloc politics mindset, priding their own values as the absolute truth and wantonly imposing their ideology on others”.

“China…equally opposes and urges all to stay alert to the rising clamour for ideological confrontation, which might lead to clashes or even confrontations among civilisations,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

China is committed to peace, friendship and cooperation with other countries, and believes that “China and the EU are partners rather than rivals, and that China-EU cooperation far outweighs our competition”, the spokesperson said.