BRUSSELS (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first videoconference with European Union foreign ministers last month was so good humoured that some diplomats in Europe described it as a “love fest”.
But two senior envoys who attended said there was no direct response from the ministers gathered in Brussels when Blinken said: “We must push back on China together and show strength in unity.”
Their reticence is partly due to an unwillingness to commit to anything until Washington spells out more fully its China policy under President Joe Biden.
But the ministers were also cautious because the EU is looking for a strategic balance in relations with Beijing and Washington that ensures the bloc is not so closely allied with one of the world’s two big powers that it alienates the other.
The EU also hopes to have enough independence from Washington and Beijing to be able on its own to deepen ties with countries in the Indo-Pacific region such as India, Japan and Australia, EU officials said.
In a new departure for the EU, they said, the bloc hopes to agree a plan next month that involves a larger and more assertive security presence in the Indo-Pacific, and more development aid, trade and diplomacy.
“We are charting a third way between Washington and Beijing,” an EU envoy in Asia said.
Another EU official in Asia expressed concern that the United States had “a hawkish agenda against China, which is not our agenda”.
Last month’s videoconference was part of an attempt under Biden to rebuild alliances neglected by former U.S. President Donald Trump, who had an antagonistic relationship with both the EU and China.
The White House has embarked on a “Europe roadshow”, a senior U.S. official said, and is in daily contact with European governments about China’s rising power, in “a sustained effort for … a high degree of coordination and cooperation in a number of areas.”
In a sign that the U.S. push on China is having an impact, Germany plans to send a frigate in August to Asia and across the South China Sea, where Beijing has military outposts on artificial islands, senior government officials told Reuters.
The EU is also set to sanction four Chinese officials and one entity – with travel bans and asset freezes – on March 22 over human rights abuses in China’s Uighur Muslim minority, diplomats said.
In a further sign, when Chinese President Xi Jinping chaired a video summit with central and eastern European countries last month, six EU member states – Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia – sent ministers rather than heads of state.
But there is still distrust in Brussels of Washington’s approach to China, even if attitudes in Europe have hardened against China over Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong, treatment of Uighur Muslims and the COVID-19 pandemic, first identified in China.
The United States says China is an authoritarian country that has embarked on a military modernisation that threatens the West, and has sought to weaken telecommunications equipment maker Huawei, which it sees as a national security threat.
The U.S.-led NATO military alliance is also beginning to focus on China, but Biden’s administration is still reviewing policy.
“We ask what their China strategy is and they say they still don’t have one,” the EU official in Asia said.
French President Emmanuel Macron highlighted concerns in some EU states last month by saying that uniting against China would create “the highest possible” potential for conflict.
But the EU is hungry for new trade and sees the Indo-Pacific as offering huge potential.
The EU has a trade deal with Japan and is negotiating one with Australia. Diplomats say countries in the Indo-Pacific want the EU to be more active in the region to keep trade free and open, and to ensure they are not left facing a straight choice between Beijing and Washington.
France committed to closer ties with allies such as Australia and India with an Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018, followed by the Netherlands, which also has its own strategy, and Germany’s looser set of “guidelines”.
The EU strategy, if agreed, could involve putting more EU military experts in EU diplomatic missions in Asia, training coast guards and sending more EU military personnel to serve on Australian ships patrolling in the Indian Ocean, diplomats said.
It is unclear how much Germany, which has close business ties to China, will commit to any new strategy. German government officials say the EU cannot afford to alienate Beijing despite labelling China a “systemic rival” in 2019.
But French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will travel to India in April to develop the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy, and the EU aims to hold a summit with India this year.
France, which has 1.8 million citizens in Pacific overseas territories, has about 4,000 troops in the region, plus navy ships and patrol boats.
“The Indo-Pacific is the cornerstone of Europe’s geopolitical path,” said a French diplomat. “There’s no alternative.”
(Writing by Robin Emmott, Editing by Timothy Heritage)