Xinjiang: EU ready to ‘cross a threshold’ with China sanctions, but unlikely to match hardline US approach

Finbarr Bermingham
·7-min read

European Union officials gave the green light to sanctions on Chinese officials accused of human rights abuses in Xinjiang on Wednesday, the first of their kind since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

The penalties were approved at preparatory meetings for next week’s Foreign Affairs Council, according to people familiar with the discussions, and will be formally adopted at a meeting of the bloc’s top diplomats on Monday.

Analysts described the move as having “crossed a threshold” in relations with Beijing. It also marks the first time that the EU will use its new human rights sanctioning toolbox – adopted last year – against China, having given it a maiden outing following the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny last month.

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“The notion of pushing through a human rights sanctions package that the likes of Hungary and others sign up to that targets Chinese entities, that is a symbolic first,” said Andrew Small, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Programme.

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“There is the capacity to dial these up and down, not just on Xinjiang, but on Taiwan, this could touch on Hong Kong. Once you cross this sort of threshold, then the notion that the EU is capable of doing this is a valuable signal to be able to send across the board,” Small added.

China is accused of detaining a million of mostly Uygurs and other ethnic minorities in reeducation camps in Xinjiang and a number of officials are to likely have their assets frozen and be issued with visa bans by Brussels, but the sanctions will not be as a broad as those imposed by the United States.

Brussels has been accused of watching from the sidelines while Washington has also banned goods linked to alleged forced labour in Xinjiang and whacked Magnitsky Act sanctions on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which has broad-ranging political, economic and military powers.

Numerous European diplomats said that when the Trump administration was pursuing such aggressive policies on China while simultaneously ostracising the EU, it was easy for Brussels to stay in its own lane.

But the Biden administration is now eager to work with Europe on a range of issues while continuing to crank up the pressure on China.

On Wednesday, Washington slapped financial sanctions on 24 Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials, expanding its punitive actions in retaliation for a drastic shake-up of the city’s election system.

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EU member states, however, are still wary of getting too closely involved with the US, with the last four years having left a trust deficit that will be difficult to repair.

“Most or all of the policies against China remain in place. It was easy to say ‘no’ to Donald Trump, but it‘s now getting harder. While there’s willingness to cooperate, the US is still in confrontation mode,” said one diplomat. “Will the EU go fully confrontational? It is unlikely, we don’t see it as black and white.”

Another compared keeping up with the US on foreign policy to steering a giant oil tanker, which can take up to three kilometres to brake. “Changing course so quickly is not an option,” they said.

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China has denied that any human rights abuses are taking place in Xinjiang. At a webinar on Tuesday, China’s ambassador to the EU Zhang Ming warned that Beijing would retaliate should sanctions be applied.

“Sanctions based on lies could be interpreted as deliberately undermining China’s security and development interests,” he said. “We want dialogue, not confrontation. We ask the EU side to think twice.

“If some insist on confrontation, we will not back down as we have no option other than to fulfil our responsibilities to the people in our country.”

While the EU is planning further action over Beijing’s plans to overhaul Hong Kong‘s electoral system – a change critics say will undermine democracy – it is understood that sanctions are not an immediate option.

A source briefed on the discussions said that in addition to the seven actions the EU adopted last summer, another four are currently on the table, including the suspension of extradition treaties between EU states and China, a new special reporting mechanism on the rule of law in Hong Kong, and sending a high-level delegation to Hong Kong.

The EU is understood to be “selling” this package of 11 measures to China-friendly members such as Hungary as a means of avoiding the “12th measure” of sanctions.

There is some exasperation in Washington at the EU’s perceived inertia on Xinjiang.

“I think the US is a little frustrated that countries are not more aggressive on Xinjiang because obviously, it’s an urgent issue, and the US is often lectured by the EU on human rights,” said Julian Ku, a professor specialising in US foreign affairs at Hofstra University.

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But China is one policy area in which Brussels is determined to use its “strategic autonomy” from the US, best displayed by the conclusion of an investment deal with Beijing in December. It is also preparing other trade actions that it insists will help it compete with China, even as it continues to engage commercially.

The euro zone economy is struggling, with economists saying it will take years to catch up with its pre-pandemic growth rates, and some members are reluctant to do anything that might affect trade with China, which overtook the US as the EU‘s biggest trading partner last year.

Maria Martin-Prat, the EU‘s chief negotiator on the investment deal, told the European Parliament’s trade committee in February that Europe “needs the economic growth that exists in a country like China”.

Meanwhile, its vaccination roll-out has been disastrous, mired in internal disputes and bickering with other jurisdictions. European powerhouses France, Germany and Italy have each vaccinated 11 people per 100, according to figures compiled by Our World in Data.

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Some EU members, including Hungary and Poland, are also courting Chinese vaccines that have yet to be approved by European regulators.

The US, on the other hand, has just passed a stimulus package totalling US$1.9 trillion and, according to Small, “has fundamental doubts about whether further engagement in the Chinese market makes sense”.

Beacon Advisers calculates that the package is more than the US spent fighting the two world wars, the Korean war, and in Vietnam combined, adjusted for inflation.

The United States has also vaccinated 33 people per 100, leaving it less vulnerable to shocks related to the pandemic or geopolitical spats with China.

“The discussion with the EU and China always seems to come back to economics and new growth drivers,” said Nick Marro, global trade lead at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “The economic discussion doesn’t necessarily drown out the concerns around security and human rights. But right now, expanding trade ties does seem to command more primacy.”

This stance has frustrated some influential figures in the European Parliament.

Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian Prime Minister and now an MEP, welcomed the incoming sanctions, but said that a relationship long predicated on carrots could use a few “more sticks”.

“Towards China, that balance is especially difficult to find and maintain, but we have no other option. The next threat is to bar imports of goods produced in Xinjiang,” Verhofstadt said.

“And in parallel, we are definitely withholding the ‘carrots‘ that so attract international partners to Europe: if there is no significant and verified improvement, the European Parliament will not pass the EU-China investment agreement.”

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