China is looking to turn on the charm in Europe to push back against a U.S. campaign for allies to shun cooperation with Beijing.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi kicked off a week-long Europe tour Tuesday, with planned stops in Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, France and Germany. The trip comes on the heels of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s two visits to Europe in as many months, in which he warned that China poses a greater threat than Russia.
In Rome for a meeting with his counterpart Luigi Di Maio, Wang told reporters that China’s relations with the European Union are on a positive trend. “But our relations are suffering from provocations and also damage from external forces, so we must concentrate on our common interests,” Wang said without identifying those forces.
“I want to emphasize that China has never wanted to wage a cold war,” Wang said. “We do not let other countries do so to push their own private interests, damaging the interests of other nations.”
For China, the European trip is part of a broader push to stabilize key relationships around the world, particularly as the U.S. seeks to keep Huawei Technologies Co. out of 5G networks, rewire global supply chains and prevent Chinese apps like TikTok and WeChat from accessing American data. China has recently toned down its rhetoric against the U.S., and both sides this week reaffirmed their commitment to the phase-one trade deal.
In addition to Wang Yi’s visit to Europe, his boss also recently made trips to Singapore and South Korea. Yang Jiechi, a Politburo member who oversees China’s foreign affairs, also pushed for a trilateral summit this year between China, South Korea and Japan, another U.S. ally.
“What China is doing is to keep relations with other countries normal and present itself in a more objective way,” said Gao Zhikai, a former Chinese diplomat and translator for late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. “To the extent there are distortions created by the U.S., China has the right to bring the situation back to normal.”
Wang said in Rome that he wants to reinforce cooperation with European countries in battling the pandemic, as well as “safeguard multilateralism” and sees China’s Belt & Road global infrastructure initiative as the driving force for boosting economic ties with Italy. PipeChina and Italy’s Snam SpA agreed on a partnership project in the Chinese gas market on the day of Wang’s visit, Foreign Minister Di Maio said.
Europe’s strategic significance to Beijing has increased as relations with the U.S. deteriorate and Pompeo seeks to build an anti-China bloc of countries, according to a researcher at the government-affiliated Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who asked not to be identified due to rules for speaking with the media. While the virtual China-EU summit in June didn’t go well, Beijing sees ties warming as Europe looks to revive its economy in the wake of the pandemic, the researcher said.
Earlier this month, Pompeo gave a speech before the Czech Senate in which he said the “tide has turned” against China in the U.S. and is starting to in Europe.
“China’s world dominance is not inevitable,” he said, adding that the U.S. ejected “Chinese intellectual property thieves” and sanctioned “human rights abusers in the Chinese government.”
China has sought to blame Pompeo for worsening ties with the U.S. while appealing to a broader set of policy makers. Gao, the former Chinese diplomat, likened him to a “hired gun.”
On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian hailed China’s relations with France, the next stop on Wang’s tour through Europe. He mentioned that President Xi Jinping has held four phone calls this year with his counterpart, Emmanuel Macron.
“China and France are both major countries in the Security Council and also with a tradition of independence,” Zhao said. “We have to continue following the consensus of our two heads of states.”
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