China gets little sympathy in Munich as US, Europe agree on need to confront rising influence

Stuart Lau

The need to confront China’s rising influence in the world has become one of the few strategic agenda items that Americans and Europeans can agree on, in sharp contrast to wider transatlantic disagreements over defence, trade and multilateralism.

Leaders from Austria and Norway on Friday expressed concerns about China’s rising clout, worries similar to those expressed by US lawmakers at the Munich Security Conference, an annual event that gathers experts from around the world.

But comments from officials at the conference made clear that even though there was general agreement on an overall strategy, the US and Europe continue to disagree on tactics.

Ahead of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s keynote speech on Saturday, which is expected to strike back against these worries, Fu Ying, the former Chinese ambassador to Britain, challenged the dominant narrative at this year’s conference by posing a question to Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives.

“Do you really think the democratic system is so fragile it could be threatened by this single hi-tech company, Huawei?” Fu asked, referring to the Trump administration’s continuing attempts to ban Huawei Technologies from supplying its next-generation 5G telecommunications technology to the US and its allies for fear it could be used by Beijing for spying.

The US Department of Justice ratcheted up pressure on Huawei on Thursday, indicting it for racketeering and conspiracy to steal trade secrets from six US companies, charges Huawei vehemently denied. The US also contended that Huawei had lied about selling products to North Korea in violation of United Nations sanctions.

But Fu was alone in her defence of China. Throughout the hours-long sessions, not one Western leader or public official came forward with comments that could be counted as marginally sympathetic to the world’s second largest economy, underscoring the widening diplomatic quagmire China finds itself in.

Increasingly, both sides of the Atlantic are expressing a common need to reduce reliance on Chinese suppliers of technology, either for national security or commercial competition reasons.

Still, Europe has not endorsed the hardline US approach, as outlined at the conference by US politicians of both major political parties.

“We are very firm [in comments to Europe] that if you go down the Huawei road, you are going to burn a lot of bridges,” Lindsey Graham, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told a panel that included the European Commission’s de facto No 3 official, Margrethe Vestager, who is in charge of the region’s competition watchdog.

Pelosi, from the opposition Democratic Party, stressed in a separate panel that the US approach to Huawei is bipartisan.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the Munich Security Conference in Germany on Friday. Photo: Reuters

And on the sidelines of this week’s security event in the Bavarian capital, US officials have been warning European journalists about the perceived hazards of using Huawei technology, with a number of European governments set to decide in the near future about which 5G suppliers to use for their national networks.

Deviations from this strict line have met with a strong US response.

Last month, Britain partly accepted Huawei’s involvement in the non-core parts of its 5G infrastructure, reportedly causing Trump to berate Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a phone conversation after Britain’s decision.

This underscores the difference in tactics the two sides have chosen in supporting their general agreement to take on an aggressive China. The US has chosen confrontation – for instance, a trade war which US President Donald Trump thinks the US is winning – while Europe has preferred dialogue and some cooperation, despite disappointments.

“Talking to the Chinese … has been difficult because they don’t understand our system that way,” Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said, recounting how ties between the two countries were frozen for six years after the Oslo-based Nobel committee awarded its Peace Prize to Chinese political dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010.

Solberg reiterated Norway’s support for its neighbour Sweden, which is currently embroiled in its own controversy with China over Beijing’s detention of Gui Minhai, a Swedish national who published books critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, at the Munich Security Conference on Friday, recounted how relations with China had been frozen for six years following the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Photo: dpa

But she did little to hide the sense of insecurity shared by both American and European politicians in the face of China presenting workable alternative model of governance.

Referring to China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said: “They built a hospital in 10 days. In Europe, we would have a debate in 10 days about when to have a discussion.”

Even the German government – which has shied away from open confrontation with China – expressed the need for Europe to take steps to ensure its own “sovereignty” in the face of a rising China, given the possibility that the US could withdraw further from the multilateral world order, potentially leaving major institutions like the World Trade Organisation and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

“We must adapt our multilateral system to the new geopolitical realities,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.

Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.

More from South China Morning Post:

This article China gets little sympathy in Munich as US, Europe agree on need to confront rising influence first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2020.