China is the EU’s second-biggest export market behind the United States. China-EU trade is worth, on average, over €1 billion in goods and services every day. The biggest EU exporter to China is Germany (currently struggling to avoid recession) followed by the UK, France, Italy, and the Netherlands.
China has also been increasing its investments in Europe over the past decade. While total Chinese investment in the EU is still relatively small compared to other countries (such as the US), it includes investment in strategically sensitive sectors such as infrastructure; Chinese firms now control 10% of Europe’s port capacity, and Italy’s decision to endorse China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure project has provoked unease among other EU leaders.
Could sensitivity over economic relations with China be why Europe has been so slow to speak out about the protests in Hong Kong? Beijing can be notoriously prickly over human rights, and countries such as Norway and the United Kingdom have suffered “diplomatic freezes” after upsetting the Chinese government. The EU’s approach to China and human rights has not always been united.
At the same time, there are signs that Europe is willing to take a stand. The EU Commission recently labelled China “simultaneously a cooperation partner [and] a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance”. EU officials have spoken out about mass detention and “re-education” camps in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Is Europe too soft on China’s human rights abuses? Or has the EU got the balance right when it comes to cooperating with China, but maintaining diplomatic pressure over issues of human rights? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!