As Xi reemerges, Europe again falls prey to China’s divide-and-rule tactics

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BALI, Indonesia — Every European leader at this week’s G20 summit in Bali wanted a one-on-one meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Not everyone got one.

The Europeans’ desire to meet Xi was driven by the fact that this week was the first opportunity to meet the Chinese leader at a major diplomatic jamboree since the lockdowns of early 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic started in China and spread to the world.

The Europeans always had to accept that they were going to be fighting for the crumbs in terms of the timetable. U.S. President Joe Biden spent three and a half hours with Xi, while France’s President Emmanuel Macron had to be content with (a still perfectly respectable) 43 minutes.

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China conspicuously revived its long-established tactic of courting specific EU countries and their national interests, something it has often used to destabilize Brussels. (When Brussels threatened an all-out trade war in 2013 over China undercutting the EU market in solar panels and telecoms equipment, China expertly shattered EU unity by threatening retaliatory action against French and Spanish wine, playing Paris and Madrid against EU trade officials.)

Once again in Bali, China took the canny nation-to-nation approach, meeting Macron, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, Italy’s Giorgia Meloni and the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte, while avoiding European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel. A meeting with Michel, at least, had been widely expected in diplomatic circles.

China bristles at the EU designation that it is a “systemic rival” to Brussels, and instead decided to leverage its influence with individual European countries.

Take the meeting with Rutte. The Chinese leader’s main interest was that the Netherlands, home to chipmaker ASML, a company that makes key equipment for microchip making, should not join any EU-U.S. trade coalition seeking to box China out of new technologies.

“It is hoped that the Netherlands would enhance Europe’s commitment to openness and cooperation,” Xi noted in a readout of the Dutch meeting. Translation: Don’t make trade trouble over microchips.

With Sánchez, Xi played up the importance of China as a motor for tourism in Spain, a sector where Madrid is particularly interested in high-rolling visitors from Asia. “The two sides need to make good preparations for the China-Spain Year of Culture and Tourism to build greater popular support for China-Spain friendship,” Xi said. 

Similarly, the Xinhua state news agency quoted Macron saying he wanted more cooperation on business, specifically in the aviation and civil nuclear energy sectors. The Chinese account of the Xi-Meloni meeting was that Beijing would import more “high-quality” goods — presumably of the luxury and gourmet variety — and would cooperate in manufacturing, energy and aerospace.

So, lots of cooperation. No suspicion of that “systemic rivalry” the nasty EU in Brussels speaks of.

Macron cozies up to Xi

In a sign that Xi’s diplomatic strategy was paying dividends, Macron took a non-confrontational approach to Xi, even massaging the Chinese leader’s ego.

The Chinese embassy to Paris promoted a video by TikTok’s domestic Chinese equivalent Douyin, in which Macron passed his best wishes to China after Xi secured a norm-breaking new mandate. (Xi was appointed for a third term as Communist Party general secretary in a highly choreographed party congress.)

Macron also hailed Xi as a “sincere” figure who should “play the role of a mediator over the next few months” in stopping further Russian aggression against Ukraine — even though Beijing has shown no sign of being a good fit for such a role since the war broke out in February.

Ignoring China’s deadly Himalayan tensions with India, escalating tension with Taiwan or military adventurism in the South China Sea, Macron declared: “China calls for peace … [There is] a deep and I know sincere attachment to … the U.N. charter.”

Macron also told reporters he planned to visit China early next year. That looks like a riposte to the visit by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who visited China earlier this month. Scholz reportedly rejected Paris’ suggestion for a joint Macron-Scholz visit and decided to go alone with a delegation of big businesses.

“Macron needed this air-time with Xi enormously as he couldn’t be seen to be left out by China when the Americans and the Germans have dominated the headlines,” a Western diplomat said.

While Macron claimed that Xi agreed with him on a “call for respect for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,” China’s own readout made no such mention, saying only: “China stands for a ceasefire, cessation of the conflict and peace talks.”

Brussels boxed out

In stark contrast to the French, Spanish, Dutch and Italian leaders, the Brussels-based EU chiefs didn’t get a look-in.

In a show of Beijing’s continually negative view of the European Union, Xi decided not to go ahead with what POLITICO understood to be a near-certain plan for Michel, the one representing all 27 countries, to meet Xi.

That event, had it been allowed to take place, would have been significant in showcasing the possibility for the bloc’s smaller economies to also make their voice heard, since Xi would otherwise be busy dealing with the bigger players.

Xi’s change of heart over a meeting with Michel came shortly after the EU Council president’s prerecorded speech at a Shanghai trade expo was dropped. According to Reuters, he tried to call out Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine in the speech, a message that was deemed too sensitive to Chinese ears.

Commission President von der Leyen, meanwhile, busied herself not with plans to line up a meeting with Xi, but on a joint show with Biden to focus on infrastructure financing for developing countries in order to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In a thinly veiled criticism of China’s approach to the new Silk Road, von der Leyen said: “The [West’s] Partnership Global for Infrastructure and Investment is an important geostrategic initiative in era of strategic competition.

“Together with leading democracies we offer values-driven, high-standard, and transparent infrastructure partnerships for low- and middle-income countries,” she said.

Her tone, though, proved to be a minority among European leaders during the G20 engagement with China.

“There’s no common message from the EU on China,” according to another EU diplomat in Bali. “But then there never was one.”

To the relief of European diplomats, at least Xi did not handle their bosses in the same way he treated Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“Everything we discuss has been leaked to the paper; that’s not appropriate,” Xi told Trudeau through an interpreter in a clip recorded by Canadian media.

“That’s not … the way the conversation was conducted. If there is sincerity on your part …” Xi said, before Trudeau interrupted him, defending his country’s interest in working “constructively” with Beijing.

Xi took his turn to interrupt. “Let’s create the conditions first,” Xi said.

Go and stand in the corner, Justin.

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