By Matiar Chowdhury:
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was on a week long European tour visiting France, Germany, Norway, Italy and the Netherlands from Aug.25 to Sept.01, 2020 against a background of simmering tension with United States and other parts of the world. The visit took place to shore up its ties and repair its coronavirus battered image amidst the plausible fear of new cold war. It is almost seven years since Chinese and European experts are striving to strike a deal to protect foreign investments, emphasize on intellectual copyrights, cease the need to transfer technology and end subsidies for Chinese public enterprises. Chinese State Councillor also came under heavy criticism during the visit for human rights violations in China.
Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok mentioned about the great importance his country attached to stability and prosperity in Hong Kong while emphasizing on the need to retain its high degree of autonomy. He further called for attention to the restriction of religious freedom particularly of Muslims, Christians and Tibetan Buddhists. Blok expressed concern about the conditions of Uygurs in Xinjiang. Netherland has infact withheld the renewal of an export licence for sale of critical chip making technology to China as a sequel to the US pressure citing reasons of national security. US had shared a classified intelligence report with Netherlands and lobbied for holding the US$150 Mn order placed with ASML.
In Germany, Wang in defensive mode threatened the Czechs about paying a heavy price for the visit of Milos Vystrcil, the Czech speaker to Taiwan. Pavel Novotny, Mayor of Reporyje, Czech called Wang a Chinese `wolf warrior diplomat’. He also called the behaviour of Wang as that of an `unmannered rude clown’ for crossing the lines of diplomatic norms and demanded an apology from China. Yu Shyi-kun, Taiwanese parliamentary leader appreciated Vystrcil’s visit as he did not yield to the threats, intimidations and lure of incentives by China. He also said many other countries need to learn from Czech. Tensions between Czech and China rose last year with Czech ending the sister cities agreement with China as Beijing insisted on a `One China Principle’ underlying Taiwan to be a part of China. Heiko Maas, German Foreign Minister remarked that such threats were inappropriate and also called for quick and unhindered Hong Kong legislative elections. He further called for withdrawal of National Security Law (NSL). Wang could meet his counterpart only in the Netherlands and Germany.
Germany announced its strategy for the Indo-Pacific region reiterating diversification of partnerships and supply chains beyond China. It also aimed to strengthen relations with the Indo Pacific region including ASEAN. Germany is the second European country next to France to announce Indo-Pacific region strategy. The recent survey in Germany points to Chinese disliking the Germans scrutiny of the Chinese response to COVID-19.
In Norway, Wang threatened the host for considering Chinese human rights activists for Nobel peace prize. Norway awarded in 2010 the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiabo, a Chinese dissident. During 2010-16, after awarding the Nobel prize the relations with China remained frozen. The China-Norway FTA negotiations which
began in 2008 resumed in 2017. Wang criticised US for unilateralism in ignoring international agreements and refusing to fulfil international obligations.
Nathan Law, self exiled Hong Kong activist visited Italy and Germany during Wang’s visit to demonstrate against suppression of human rights in Hong Kong. In France, Wang called for finalising the agreement with EU which is still work-in-progress and hoped for finalisation by this year end.
Di Mio, Italian Foreign Minister had raised the Hong Kong issue saying citizens’ rights and freedom had to be respected. He also reiterated that Italy would follow with great attention the developments of NSL. Earlier, Nathan Law called on Italy for taking a more assertive role with China over Hong Kong NSL. The EU Parliament and the Italian Parliament had previously condemned the human rights situation in Hong Kong.
In March 2019, an EU policy paper on `EU-China- A Strategic Outlook’ called China a `systemic rival’ rather than an equal partner. In June, EU President Ursula von der Leyeb said that work on the agreement had become `difficult’. During his visit to Europe Wang could have noticed the running out of patience of EU as a result of unfulfilled promises of equal access to China’s market and ending of State subsidies. The negotiations over new investment agreements have ended in deadlock though it will be raised again in EU-China virtual summit on September 17. In the European Commission, there is a realisation that the association with China has gone too far. The pandemic in Europe has exposed the over dependence on China not only in terms of health products but also, strategic minerals like lithium and cobalt. The realisation has hardened with China’s posture that the World particularly EU needs China more than China needs the EU. The long press encounters in France, Germany and Norway would have certainly irked the Chinese Foreign Minister. In each of his stops during the visit, Wang was reminded about the political repercussions for clamping the National Security Law in Hong Kong over pro-democracy activists. The evolving situation points to the possible economic price China may have to pay for imposing the NSL. Human rights issues have threatened to steal the spotlight from China’s deliberate focus on trade during Wang’s European tour.
Matiar Chowdhury Jaurnalist & Writer, London 17th September 2020.