Caution on China from EU, West's 'soft underbelly'

The European Union's cautious response to China's clampdown on Hong Kong on Friday will not much trouble Beijing and underscores Brussels' dilemma when dealing with the increasingly confident great power.

After a video conference with 27 foreign ministers, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed "grave concern" but he could threaten no sanctions and said planning for an EU-China summit would continue.

In fact, Borrell said, only one of the European countries even raised the possibly of sanctions -- a diplomatic source told AFP this was Sweden -- and he said European investment in China was not in question.

He did warn that the security law that China plans to impose on Hong Kong is not in line with Beijing's international commitments and that "we will have to raise the issue in our continued dialogue with China."

But his comments drew a scathing response from at least one senior official from the United States, which along with its English-speaking allies has taken a much tougher line on the Chinese ambitions.

"Official Europe takes a step away from the West -- and towards the money," tweeted Richard Grenell, the outgoing United States ambassador to Germany and acting Director of National Intelligence.

Some European analysts agreed Beijing's feathers would remain unruffled.

"China will welcome this because it sees the European Union as the West's soft underbelly. It's the expected weak reaction," said Antoine Bondaz, of French think tank Foundation for Strategic Research.

For Bondaz, Beijing knows Borrell would struggle to find unanimity among all 27 capitals for anything stronger than an expression of discomfort that China is not respecting its 1994 Hong Kong takeover agreement.

But, he warns, it is naive to think China will offer any concession in exchange for Europe looking the other way on Hong Kong's autonomy.

Europe's interest, he argues, is in ensuring that China lives up to its commitments, and warns that in diplomacy Europe must be "perfectly explicit" in what it says or see China wriggle off the hook.

The EU statement nodded in this direction: "EU relations with China are based on mutual respect and trust. This decision further calls into question China's will to uphold its international commitments."

But it fell far short of the aggressive language coming out of Washington, where President Donald Trump launched into his day by furiously tweeting out a one word message: "CHINA!"

- 'Systemic rival' -

The cautious EU statement came after the US, Britain, Canada and Australia issued stern criticism of the planned law, which would punish secession and subversion of state power in Hong Kong.

Chinese security agencies will also be allowed to operate openly in Hong Kong, which has been an autonomous territory under its own basic law within China under the terms of its handover from Britain in 1997.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the UK will improve the rights of British National (Overseas) passport holders -- a status offered to many Hong Kong residents -- if China goes ahead.

And the United States has revoked the special status conferred on Hong Kong under its own diplomatic rules, paving the way for the territory to be stripped of trading and economic privileges.

This is not the EU way. China's President Xi Jinping is due to meet the EU's 27 leaders in Leipzig in September. Borrell said the timetable of the meeting might yet change due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Steven Blockmans of the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels think tank, said EU policy uncertainty reflects a belated realisation that a once-coveted economic partner is developing into a strategic rival.

"For the past couple of years, the EU has strengthened its commercial relations with China," he told AFP.

"It's only in 2019, after a wave of strategic takeovers of European firms by Chinese state-owned companies, that the EU recognised that China ... is also an economic competitor and a systemic rival," he said.

"Still, the EU does not want to be put in a position where it has to choose between the US and China. It is simply too costly for Europe to follow Trump's call to de-couple from China."

The coronavirus crisis, that spread from China to Europe and did much more damage there, has underlined this divide perhaps even more so, for Brussels, than concerns over Hong Kong's status.

But plans to reduce Europe's reliance on Asian suppliers for medical gear and medicines do not amount to the kind of aggressive strategy that some in Washington are pushing to break from China.

"Given this gravity field in which the EU needs to operate, one cannot simply compare the speed and force of its statements and actions with that of unitary countries like the US, Australia and Canada," said Blockmans.

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