Leading European diplomats in Beijing have stressed their commitment to human rights and appealed to China for mutual respect and understanding following a defiant speech from Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
References to human rights are “foundational matters” and not a geopolitical game, Caroline Wilson, the U.K.’s ambassador to China, said on a panel discussion on Sunday. China’s attitude is not only assertive, but turning aggressive, “much to our dismay,” Nicolas Chapuis, the European Union’s ambassador said on the same panel.
“Effective multilateralism implies that all nations, big and small, sit at the same table with the same rights, and most importantly, accept peer review in a tolerant and constructive manner,” Chapuis said.
In a sweeping speech that touched on topics from the pandemic to counterterrorism, North Korea to the Iran nuclear issue and Taiwan, Wang on Saturday showcased China’s rising confidence and assertiveness in global affairs, while criticizing the U.S. and its allies for grasping to an outdated Cold War mentality. He underscored much of the sentiment from last week’s centennial celebrations speech by President Xi Jinping.
“Today’s China is no longer the same country of 100 years ago,” Wang said at the World Peace Forum organized by Tsinghua University and the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, a government-run policy group. “No individual or force should underestimate the determination and capacity of the Chinese people to uphold the country’s sovereignty, security, and development interests.”
Wilson and Chapuis also spoke at the same forum. Those in China who say that rules based on the international order is flawed are behaving as though “multilateral rules had not been negotiated, agreed and for decades accepted by all including China,” Chapuis said.
Attitudes in several European capitals have grown less favorable toward China over a range of diplomatic disputes including alleged human rights abuses in the region of Xinjiang. European lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a resolution in May to withhold ratification of an investment agreement with China in response to sanctions against members of the bloc.
The Italian ambassador to China, Luca Ferrari, said on the Sunday panel that the sanctions have been the “main shadow” on the relationship between Beijing and the EU. He called on China to look again at the sanctions to “come out of this conundrum.”
“The risk, if China does not open, is that Europe starts closing up,” he said.
Relations between Beijing and Washington have also remained strained under U.S. President Joe Biden, despite some expectations they would improve once Donald Trump left office. Biden has been slow to remove the tariffs Trump put in place on Chinese goods as the administration evaluates a new set of policies.
In Thursday’s centennial speech, Xi warned the nation’s adversaries to avoid opposing his government, saying that China can no longer be “bullied and abused.” Anyone trying to do that “will surely break their heads on the steel Great Wall built with the blood and flesh of 1.4 billion of Chinese people,” he said.
The first face-to-face talks between China and the U.S. back in March descended into bickering between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Yang Jiechi, a member of the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo.
Washington and Beijing were reportedly discussing a meeting between Blinken and Wang at a during a recent Group of 20 event in Italy, but that never happened. The U.S. was exploring the possibility of a telephone call between Biden and Xi, according to the Financial Times said, but no progress has been reported.
Wang criticized Washington across a range of issues. On Afghanistan, he said the U.S. had created the Afghan issue in the first place. “It should not simply shift the burden on to others and withdraw from the country with the mess left behind unattended,” he said.
The U.S. also needed to reconsider its incessant military threats and pressure on North Korea over the decades and “acknowledge and address Pyongyang’s legitimate concerns,” Wang said. On the Iranian nuclear issue, Wang said it is most critical for the U.S. to make an earlier decision to rejoin the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
“The U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA and its maximum pressure on Iran are the root causes of the current Iranian nuclear crisis,” said Wang. “As the saying, goes, he who tied the bow should untie it.”
Wang said the world must categorically oppose “bloc” confrontation, citing U.S. efforts in the Indo-Pacific region as an example. “It is the revival of the Cold War mentality and regression of history. It should be swept into the dustbin.”
“Dreaming the old dream of hegemony during the Cold War will not secure a promising future, still less build back a better world,” said Wang.
Amid the tensions, sources said that Xi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron are expected to hold a video call this week.
The agenda isn’t yet known, according to the people, who asked not to be named as the information isn’t public.
Macron is said to be keen to give a new push to the interests of the aviation company Airbus SE, and to press Xi on easing travel restrictions into China for EU citizens, especially business travelers.
The call also comes weeks after Group of 7 leaders joined the EU and the U.S. in pushing for a fresh World Health Organization probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment. Officials with the French and German governments didn’t confirm that the call would go ahead.
Grounded by the pandemic, Merkel, Macron and Xi held a video call in late 2020. Macron later hosted a virtual climate-focused call with Merkel and Xi in April, days before a wider climate summit hosted by Biden, also held virtually.
At the time, the European leaders welcomed Xi’s renewed commitment for China to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The trio also discussed the coronavirus pandemic and global vaccine availability.
Macron has said that one of his goals as French president is to visit China once a year, and he invited Merkel to a meeting with Xi in France in 2019 to project a unified front to Beijing from Europe’s two largest economies.
EU lawmakers in May stalled the ratification of a landmark investment deal with China — the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment — in response to Beijing’s counter-sanctions against members of the bloc.
The EU, along with the U.S., the U.K. and Canada, earlier this year imposed sanctions against China over alleged human rights abuses on Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, drawing an immediate reaction from Beijing.
Much of the global criticism toward China has focused on its treatment of the Uyghurs and other minorities in the far west of the country. China has waged an international campaign against the claims, saying it’s trying to fight terrorism and improve the livelihoods of minorities.
A panel of United Nations experts in 2019 said an estimated 1 million people have been sent to internment facilities in the region, part of a set of policies the U.S. has said amounts to genocide.
Western brands have also been pulled into the controversy. This spring, China promoted a campaign to boycott certain Western companies after the EU and its allies imposed the sanctions. Shares of H&M, Nike Inc. and others plummeted as Chinese officials endorsed the boycotts and celebrities cut ties with brands including Adidas, New Balance and Japan’s Uniqlo.
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