Incoming EU chief Ursula von der Leyen vows to 'define' relations with increasingly assertive China

Stuart Lau in Brussels

The European Union's new top official vowed in her debut press conference to "define" the bloc's future relationship with a "more self-assertive" China.

European Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen spoke to reporters in Brussels on Tuesday as Sweden, an EU member with strained China relations, is to unveil a new strategic paper on the Asian superpower this week.

China has sought to count on European comity as it continues to fight the 13-month-old trade war with the US.

But some European politicians " inspired by US President Donald Trump's hard-nosed tactics " are calling for a tougher stance on China's trade practices, cybersecurity threats and human rights policies, with the Hong Kong protests now driving a large part of the conversation.

The European Union has to be the guardian of #multilateralism. We are stronger by doing together what we cannot do alone. pic.twitter.com/5JnntSQ18i

" Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) September 10, 2019

"[My team] will shape the European way; build our relations with the United States of America " although we have issues, they are our closest ally; define our relations with a more self-assertive China; be a reliable neighbour, for example, to Africa; stand up for our values and world-class standards," von der Leyen said.

"This commission will be a geopolitical commission," the president-elect added. "I want the union to be a guardian of multiculturalism because we know that we are stronger by doing together what we cannot do alone."

On her Twitter account, von der Leyen, who will formally succeed Jean-Claude Juncker in November, posted an image highlighting four points of her agenda: climate change, US relations, China relations and supporting the EU's neighbouring nations.

While von der Leyen did not go into detail regarding how she would deal with China, her remarks caught diplomats and analysts by surprise as the commission led by Juncker had already laid out a China paper in March, categorising China as a "systemic rival".

"It's a very complex relationship with China, so defining a relationship with China is vague," said Duncan Freeman, a China expert at the College of Europe. "It's still an open question what the future policy is."

On Wednesday, Swedish national broadcaster SVT reported that Stockholm would unveil its long-awaited China Strategy paper in a few days.

Swedish-China relations plummeted in 2015 with the arrest of Gui Minhai (seated), a Swedish citizen who was among Causeway Bay bookstore staff accused of publishing material critical of the Communist Party. Photo: Simon Song alt=Swedish-China relations plummeted in 2015 with the arrest of Gui Minhai (seated), a Swedish citizen who was among Causeway Bay bookstore staff accused of publishing material critical of the Communist Party. Photo: Simon Song

The Swedish government also plans to set up a new China Centre to consolidate information about China, according to the report.

Sweden-China relations hit rock bottom in late 2015 with Beijing's arrest of Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen who was one of five staff members at a bookstore in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay area accused of publishing material critical of Communist Party leaders.

Von der Leyen hinted at taking a more muscular approach on the thorny issue of Beijing's subsidies to Chinese firms, saying two of her deputies would "address the distortive effects of foreign subsidies in the internal market".

The EU has been looking at ways to tackle China's massive subsidies, but trade chief Sabine Weyand last week ruled out applying EU state aid law "extraterritorially" " a reference to punishing companies for getting state subsidies if that happens outside the bloc.

Von der Leyen is welcomed by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker before a meeting at the European Commission in Brussels on Monday. Photo: EPA-EFE alt=Von der Leyen is welcomed by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker before a meeting at the European Commission in Brussels on Monday. Photo: EPA-EFE

The EU and China have sought to close some disagreements over trade and market reform. In April, China agreed to a long-overdue investment deal with the EU "by the end of next year, or earlier".

But on cybersecurity, all eyes are on Brussels, awaiting its final 5G mobile technology policy guidelines and any possible recommendations regarding Chinese telecoms giant Huawei's role in the technology's next-generation development.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.