China's divide-and-conquer tactics are already 'in action,' Ursula von der Leyen warns

Ursula von der Leyen urged EU countries to come up with a new strategy on China, "one that we can all rally around."
Ursula von der Leyen urged EU countries to come up with a new strategy on China, "one that we can all rally around." Copyright European Union, 2023.
Copyright European Union, 2023.
By Jorge Liboreiro
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Speaking before MEPs, Ursula von der Leyen urged EU countries to come up with a new unified strategy on how to deal with China.


China's plan to pit European Union countries against each other in order to advance its own geopolitical interests is already "in action," Ursula von der Leyen has warned in a new critical speech.

The cautionary remarks from the European Commission president come almost two weeks after her joint trip with French President Emmanuel Macron to Beijing.

At the end of that visit, Macron attracted controversy for suggesting the EU should not become "America's follower" in the confrontation between China and the United States over Taiwan, a democratic island that the Chinese Communist Party considers a breakaway province and has vowed to reunite with the mainland.

"Is it in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan? No. The worse thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the US agenda and a Chinese overreaction," Macron said in an interview with Politico Europe and Les Echos, referring to the concept of "strategic autonomy."

Macron's words triggered an intense backlash from Eastern European and American officials, who lashed out at the French leader for undermining the transatlantic alliance.

Speaking on Tuesday morning before the European Parliament, Ursula von der Leyen carefully bypassed the controversy but issued a pointed caveat on what Beijing is trying to accomplish.

"A strong European China policy relies on strong coordination between member states and EU institutions, and on a willingness to avoid the divide and conquer tactics that we know we may face," von der Leyen said, quoting a previous speech.

"We have already in the recent days and weeks seen those tactics in action," she went on.

"And it is now time for Europe to move to action, too. Now is the time to demonstrate our collective will, it is time to jointly define what success looks like, and to show that unity that makes us strong."

On Taiwan, von der Leyen underlined the EU's commitment to the One China policy, which recognises the People's Republic of China as the sole government of China, but insisted on the need to preserve "peace and stability" in the Taiwan Strait.

Western allies have long suspected Beijing might launch a full-scale military intervention to take control of the island, a cataclysm that would in all likelihood upend the supply chains of semiconductors and bring the global economy to a standstill.

"We stand strongly against any unilateral change of the status quo, in particular by the use of force," von der Leyen said.

During her intervention, the European Commission chief said the world had changed "enormously" since 2019 when the bloc unveiled its last common policy on China, and urged member states to come up with a new, unified strategy, "one that we can all rally around."

But this effort has been thwarted by deep-seated disagreements among EU countries on how to engage with China, a split clearly reflected in the negative reception of Macron's comments.

Beijing's position on the Ukraine war, which the West considers overly ambivalent and biased in favour of Moscow, has further compounded the policy challenge.

"I believe we can – and we must – carve out our own distinct European approach that also leaves space for us to cooperate with other partners, too," von der Leyen said, in an apparent reference to Macron's long-held desire for strategic autonomy.

"And the starting point for this is the need to have a shared and very clear-eyed picture of the risks and the opportunities in our engagement with China."

Von der Leyen then repeated her proposal based on "de-risking" certain aspects of EU-China relations, such as renewable energy, raw materials, emerging technologies and defence, which are now more exposed to undue interference due to "China's explicit fusion of its military and commercial sectors."


The president added her services would develop a new instrument to supervise outbound investment in a "very small number but sensitive technologies," which she did not name.

"We need to ensure that our companies' capital, their expertise, their knowledge are not used to enhance the military and intelligence capabilities of those who are also our systemic rivals," von der Leyen said.

"That cannot be."

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