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'China is a necessary partner, like it or not,' says EU foreign affairs chief

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Protesters singing and gesture with five fingers, signifying the "Five demands - not one less" during a protest in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, Friday, June 12, 2020.
Protesters singing and gesture with five fingers, signifying the "Five demands - not one less" during a protest in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, Friday, June 12, 2020.   -   Copyright  Vincent Yu/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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Striking the right balance in EU-China relations has not proven easy of late.

Pressure has mounted after the Group of Seven (G7) issued a statement expressing deep concern about China’s plans to impose new security laws in Hong Kong.

For the moment, the EU is reluctant to impose sanctions on China.

"China is clearly a necessary partner, like it or not," Josep Borrell, the European Union's Foreign Policy chief, said in a debate with MEPs on Thursday.

He added the EU needs to work with Beijing on global challenges such as climate change, but admitted that human rights remain a contentious issue in relations with China. Borrell said he raised the situation in Hong Kong with the Chinese foreign affairs minister in a "long conversation" last week.

Yet some in the European Parliament are calling on the European Commission to take a harder line when it comes to protecting Hong Kong's autonomy. In particular, they are asking for sanctions to be put on the table.

Some MEPs recalled the annexation of Crimea by Russia, which resulted in the EU issuing sanctions. These sanctions were rolled over again in a decision made on Thursday.

The Bulgarian MEP Alexander Alexandrov Yordanov, from the European People's Party, evoked his own past under communism and called for a tough line on Beijing.

"Sanctions are the only instrument to bring communist dinosaurs to their senses," he said.

The Belgian MEP Assita Kanko, of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, agreed: "If we have to truly defend democracy at home and abroad, we cannot just issue statements of support for Hong Kong democratic forces. We must back up our words with actions."

MEPs insisted that Borrell brings the issue to the table when EU leaders hold a video call with Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang on Monday.

"We want China to understand that resigning to international obligations doesn't come free of cost," said the Green MEP Reinhard Butiokofer, from Germany. "This message should be shared with Chinese leaders at the EU summit on Monday."

If the EU chooses "grandstanding rhetoric and Photoshop diplomacy" but ignores the "unpleasant sides" of economic partners like China, the Spanish independent MEP Carles Puigdemont said, "the discussion will be not on the concept of the 'one country, two systems' but the EU will have shown yet again that it has 'one set of principles, two standards'."

The coronavirus pandemic has further troubled the EU-China relationship, but it remains a strategic economic partner for many members of the bloc.