02/20/2021, 08.00
EUROPE–CHINA
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Human rights and democracy: small EU states review relations with Beijing

by Emanuele Scimia

For Lithuania’s Deputy Foreign Minister, the European Union needs a common policy towards China. The latest 17+1 summit is a flop. Xi Jinping fails to keep his promises on investments. Germany and France remain cautious. Estonian intelligence warns that China wants a “silenced” world under its dominance.

 

Rome (AsiaNews) – More and more Eastern European countries, courted by China as a partner in its new Silk Roads (Belt and Road Initiative), are distancing themselves from the Asian giant. One of them is Lithuania. Speaking to AsiaNews, Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Egidijus Meilūnas made it clear that whilst his government intends to pursue dialogue with the Chinese, it has a more disenchanted position compared to the recent past, something shared by a growing number of European nations.

“We are reconsidering our approach to China,” Meilūnas explained. “Lithuania is interested in further bilateral cooperation with China, based on mutual respect for human rights, democracy and rule of law.”

At the annual summit of the 17+1 group, which was held virtually on 9 February, six EU member states (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria) sent junior ministers, a snub against Xi Jinping according to several analysts. The 17+1 initiative includes China and 16 countries of central and eastern Europe, 12 of which belong to the EU.

Despite Xi's promises to increase food imports from the region, simplify customs controls, and make China's coronavirus vaccine available, most of Europe's 17+1 members are dissatisfied with Beijing. They note that Chinese investments have decreased instead of increasing, whilst their trade deficit with the Asian partner has widened.

The China Global Investment Tracker estimates that Chinese investments last year in the Belt and Road scheme stopped at US$ 46.5 billion, down from US$ 103 billion in 2019, and US$ 117 billion in 2018.

Meilūnas says his government wants the EU to develop a common strategy to manage relations with China. He stresses that economic ties with Beijing must be based on respect for the rules-based world order, a point that must be at the top of the EU’s agenda.

The problem with Meilūnas’ suggestion is that the EU remains divided on how to deal with China's geopolitical challenge. Despite warnings from US President Joe Biden before he took office, the EU reached a major investment agreement with China on 30 December. As Slovak MEP Miriam Lexmann noted in a recent interview with the Apple Daily, without a clear commitment by the Chinese on human rights, the pact risks not being ratified by the EU Parliament.

Germany and France strongly back the trade deal with China. Berlin wants to protect German companies, whilst French President Emmanuel Macron aims to boost the EU’s “strategic autonomy” from the United States.

Only small countries like the Czech Republic (Czechia) and the Baltic states are calling for a tougher approach to China, probably under US pressure. Estonia’s foreign intelligence service paints a start picture of the situation. Its annual report, released Wednesday, notes that China is trying to create a rift between the United States and Europe. For Estonians, the Chinese Communist Party wants a “silenced world”, dominated by China and “dependent on [its] technology”.

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