China may be a systemic rival to the European Union but it’s not a threat to world peace, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said Monday.
Borrell emerged from a three-hour video discussion with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to defend what he called a “realistic” approach to Beijing. His sanguine view of China’s military ambitions puts him at odds with the United States and some of China’s neighbors, ranging from Japan to India, which are increasingly worried that Beijing is flexing its military muscle from the Himalayas to the South China Sea.
Borrell’s discussion with Wang took place as EU-China relations are under intense scrutiny after China moved to strengthen its legal grip on Hong Kong and as some member countries have called on the EU to tackle more aggressively disinformation from China and Russia related to the coronavirus.
Borrell said Hong Kong, as well as human rights, were part of the “open and frank” talks. And among the main points of discussion was the decision last year by the EU to call China a “systemic rival.”
“I understand that for China to be presented as a systemic rival is something that looked a little bit controversial” he told reporters in a videoconference after the talks. “We talked a lot about it, … words matter and sometimes they matter a lot,” he added.
But Borrell stressed that the term does not mean the EU sees Beijing as a security threat. “China has a global ambition but at the same time I don’t think that China is playing a role that can threaten the world peace,” he argued.
“They committed once again that they want to be present in the world and to play a global role but they don’t have military ambitions and they don’t want to use the force to participate in military conflicts,” he added.
A number of countries have made clear they are much more wary of China’s increasing military power.
A top U.S. defense official, John C. Rood, said last year that China is “promoting an authoritarian model, one that doesn’t respect the sovereignty of others.”
“You’re starting to see China develop overseas military bases, overseas intelligence collection locations,” Rood noted.
Japan, India, Vietnam and Taiwan are among other countries to have expressed deep concern about China’s military ambitions. Tokyo signaled last year that China is the country’s biggest security threat — bigger than nuclear-armed North Korea.
Borrell underlined that the EU had many points in common with China such as continued support for the Iran nuclear deal, from which the U.S. withdrew in 2018.
Tuesday’s discussion was also intended to prepare for an upcoming video meeting expected later this month between European Council President Charles Michel, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
Borrell said the summit could finalize a document setting out cooperation with Beijing, called Agenda 2025. He said an investment agreement “will not be ready for the summit, that’s clear.”
The investment agreement is intended by the EU to push Beijing to deliver on promises of equal treatment for European companies and end a practice of forcing foreign firms to share know-how when operating in China.
A bigger EU-China summit — involving leaders of the bloc’s member countries and Chinese President Xi Jinping — was due to take place in September in the German city of Leipzig but it has been was postponed due to the coronavirus.
“For sure we have to allocate more resources in the fight against disinformation”— EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell
Borrell is expected to present on Wednesday a proposal with Commission Vice President Vĕra Jourová on how to step up the EU response to disinformation on the pandemic. The EU has pointed the finger of blame at both China and Russia for such disinformation.
Borrell said the EU’s foreign policy arm is ready to do more to fight disinformation from China and elsewhere if member countries provide the means. “For sure we have to allocate more resources in the fight against disinformation,” he said. “I’m happy to devote more resources but the member states have to agree on that, not only preaching but providing.”