Senior diplomats from the United States and European Union met on Wednesday to discuss their litany of grievances about Beijing, from human rights in Xinjiang and the erosion of autonomy in Hong Kong to economic “coercion” and China’s actions in the South China Sea.
Held in Brussels, the meeting between US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Stefano Sannino, the head of the European External Action Service, marked the resumption of a high-level US-EU strategic dialogue on China that was announced in October during the Trump administration.
Among the areas of shared concern the officials addressed were “human rights violations in Xinjiang and Tibet, the erosion of autonomy and democratic processes in Hong Kong, economic coercion, disinformation campaigns, and regional security issues, in particular the situation in the South China Sea,” according to a joint statement.
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Also under discussion was the need to grant Taiwan “meaningful participation” in multilateral forums, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Health Assembly, the United Nations body that governs the WHO.
The calls follow an appeal by the Group of Seven nations last month for Taiwan to be given observer status at the assembly. Beijing – which regards the self-ruled island as a breakaway province which must eventually be reunited with the mainland – has blocked such efforts, citing the need to “safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment about the US-EU meeting.
Beyond China, Sherman and Sannino also used the occasion to discuss a range of other foreign policy issues of “mutual concern”, including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Israel-Gaza crisis.
Sannino described his talks with Sherman as “fruitful”, posting on Twitter that the two sides had “converging views and [a] shared commitment to democracy and rules-based multilateralism”.
Sherman was equally upbeat, calling it a “great meeting” that focused on “shared priorities – from combating climate change, to building back better following the pandemic”.
While Wednesday’s official joint statement ran the gamut on Western democracies’ grievances with Beijing’s behaviour both within and beyond its borders, it included no concrete policy declarations.
There was also no mention of any coordinated action about Beijing’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics, despite growing calls from human rights advocates and US lawmakers for the Biden administration to lead some form of boycott because of the Chinese government’s human rights record.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on May 13 that he would seek input from allies “in the months ahead”.
Biden administration officials have pledged a robust response to Beijing’s perceived wrongdoings, but they have also identified areas they hope to secure China’s cooperation in addressing – an approach the European Union appears to welcome.
In their statement, Sherman and Sannino said they had talked about “pursuing constructive engagement with China on issues such as climate change and [nuclear] non-proliferation, and on certain regional issues”.
Beijing is seeing tensions increase in its relationships with Washington and Brussels alike. Last week, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to halt consideration of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, a sweeping investment deal with China that took seven years to negotiate, after both sides traded sanctions over China’s alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
But even as European enthusiasm for closer financial ties with China has waned, observers anticipate that Washington will struggle to get the bloc on board with all aspects of its China policy.
Just last year, China overtook the US as the EU’s top trading partner, according to data from Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, and given the multitude of member countries’ interests and constraints when it comes to dealing with Beijing, the EU will end up “doing a balancing act”, former US trade representative Charlene Barshefsky said at a US Chamber of Commerce event last week.
Those considerations mean “the US doesn’t get everything it wants”, she said.
As is typically the case with joint statements, there was no visible daylight between the US and the EU’s positions, though the communique acknowledged the need for flexibility in dealing with China.
US and EU officials on Wednesday reiterated that both sides’ relations with Beijing “are multifaceted and comprise elements of cooperation, competition, and systemic rivalry”.
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