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Third time's a charm: Borrell heads to China to talk Ukraine, Taiwan, Middle East and human rights

High Representative Josep Borell is expected to address the Israel-Hamas war during his three-day trip to China.
High Representative Josep Borell is expected to address the Israel-Hamas war during his three-day trip to China. Copyright European Union, 2023.
Copyright European Union, 2023.
By Jorge Liboreiro
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After two unsuccessful attempts earlier this year, Josep Borrell, the European Union's foreign policy chief, is finally embarking on his highly anticipated trip to China.

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The first attempt was thwarted after Borrell tested positive for COVID-19 while the second was cancelled due to the mysterious disappearance, and subsequent dismissal, of his Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang.

Now, it seems, the third time's a charm for the outspoken diplomat, whose three-day visit begins today in Shanghai before later moving to Beijing.

Borrell boards the plane at a precarious time for EU-China relations, which have in the last few years taken a sharp turn for the worse as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Russia's war against Ukraine, continued tensions in the Taiwan Strait and tit-for-tat trade restrictions in the fields of semiconductors and critical raw materials. The strain further increased last month when the European Commission launched a formal inquiry into China-made electric vehicles.

The foreboding atmosphere notwithstanding, Borrell is determined to seize the opportunity offered by the resumption of face-to-face talks that has allowed other high-ranking EU officials, including Valdis Dombrovskis, Věra Jourová and Kadri Simson, to travel to China in recent months.

The succession of official visits is gradually laying the ground for an EU-China summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council Charles Michel sometime later this year, although no official date has yet been announced.

Before then, Borrell has his work cut out for him.

One of his main tasks will be to explain the EU's new strategy of "de-risking," introduced in March by von der Leyen to decrease dependencies on strategic sectors, such as solar panels, batteries and electric cars, that China comfortably controls.

The approach has resulted in the bloc's first-ever economic security strategy, which paves the way for export controls and investment screening in sensitive areas.

While Brussels insists "de-risking" is a benign path to build economic resilience within an open market, Beijing suspects it is a form of protectionism that is stealthily designed to dent the country's technology edge.

"China feels the strategy was pushed by the United States," said a senior EU official. "But the EU would have done it anyway."

The senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to freely express their opinions, said the bloc could no longer ignore the link between economic dependencies and national security, even if it was "fresh territory for our major partners."

"It's about realism in our approach," the official said. "As much as we take China seriously, we would like China to take the EU seriously."

This is the tone that Borrell is expected to adopt during his visit, whose centrepiece will be the 12th EU-China Strategic Dialogue with Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Friday. 

The dialogue will have an open agenda to let both sides discuss their respective topics of concern. For Borrell, these will be Beijing's controversial position in the Ukraine war, the situation in the Indo-Pacific (with a clear focus on Taiwan), human rights, climate action, economic affairs, global debt and the functioning of the multilateral system. 

Borrell will convey a message that Europeans have repeated over the past months: China must not provide Russia with any weapons to sustain the invasion of Ukraine. Although these fears have diminished, suspicion still remains about non-lethal components that are banned under EU sanctions but that China can still trade with Russia.

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"Our sanctions are not extraterritorial, they only apply to EU companies," said the senior official. "Prohibiting Chinese exports to Russia is not something we can do – but we can pass a clear message on expectations."

The Israel-Hamas war will be the latest addition to the talking points.

Borrell has strongly condemned Hamas, which the EU considers a terrorist organisation, for launching a "barbaric" attack against the Jewish population but said "some of the actions" taken by Israel in retaliation, like cutting off water and food supplies to the Gaza Strip, are "against international law."

For its part, Beijing has struck a neutral stance, calling on "relevant parties to remain calm, exercise restraint and immediately end the hostilities." The muted reaction, which avoided a forceful rebuke of Hamas, has been criticised by Israeli and American officials.

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Following the meeting with Minister Wang Yi, Borrell will deliver a speech at the Peking University, a chance to share his views about what EU-China relations should look like in the ever-changing 21st century.

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