A week with high diplomatic tensions

HR/VP Blog – Last week the pace of international developments accelerated. All the EU’s relationships with the world’s key strategic actors have been in play, i.e. with the US, China, Russia and Turkey. But we have also seen important developments in their relationships with each other. Many events seem to indicate the often-announced confrontation between democracies and authoritarian regimes. However, even if Russia and China seem to join forces to face the “Western world”, the future geopolitical landscape of a multipolar world is not simple.


This past week, the pieces of today’s strategic ‘Rubik’s cube’ have been moving. Let me try to capture the geo-political movements of a week that in fact started on 18 March with the first US-China meeting under the Biden administration in Alaska and ended on 25 March with a European Summit in which US President Biden also participated, via video link.

During this week we also had the usual EU Foreign Affairs Council; I met with Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu; I also took part in the discussion at the NATO Ministerial Meeting on Russia and had an important first meeting in person with the US Secretary of State, Tony Blinken.

EU Foreign Ministers taking actions on human rights and China escalates.

On Monday 22 March, we met with EU Foreign Ministers. The preparation of the European Council debate on Turkey was the main point on the agenda, but we took also some operational decisions. Among those was the adoption of ‘restrictive measures’ under the new EU Global Human Rights Sanctions regime, which we introduced at the end of last year. Concretely, we agreed on a package targeting persons and entities from Russia, China, North Korea, Libya, Sudan and Eritrea. We also expanded our existing sanctions regime on Myanmar.

These decisions were proof of our willingness to take action to tackle gross human rights violations, wherever these occur. Each individual or entity listed has been carefully selected for their direct involvement in human rights abuses. Importantly, we took the decision to sanction Chinese officials for their actions in Xinjiang in coordination with our most important like-minded partners: the US, Canada and the UK. During our Foreign Affairs Council meeting, we learned that China was responding to our targeted decision listing of four people and one entity, with broader sanctions against ten people (eight members of national and the European Parliament plus two think tankers) and four entities including the Political and Security Committee in the Council and the Sub-Committee on Human Rights in the European Parliament and two think tanks, along with all their families. The inclusion of democratically elected officials and independent researchers, for the criticism that they have been expressing about China, underlined our differences when it comes to democratic principles and fundamental freedoms.


"There has been a firm, principled and unanimous rejection of these Chinese sanctions, which indeed are both disproportionate and unjustified."


Regarding China, we may not always agree on everything in the EU, but there has been a firm, principled and unanimous rejection of these Chinese sanctions, which indeed are both disproportionate and unjustified. Clearly, this move makes our relations and cooperation more difficult. The Directors of 35 prominent European think tanks have rejected these moves and expressed solidarity with their sanctioned colleagues. I fully agree that academic freedom must be upheld and that we actually need more not less dialogue between European and Chinese researchers.

A multipolar world: tectonic shifts among China, Russia, the US and the EU

Meanwhile, China and Russia have been moving closer to each other: their Foreign Ministers Sergei Lavrov and Wang Yi met this week in China. Both said they wanted to strengthen their technological independence from the West and called on ‘countries to stop interfering in other countries’ sovereign internal affairs’. In addition, Minister Lavrov repeated once again during the joint press conference that ‘there are no relations with the European Union as an organization’, adding that ‘the entire infrastructure of these relations has been destroyed by unilateral decisions made by Brussels.’ As EU High Representative, I can only regret this move and state my clear disagreement with this baseless claim.

Moscow and Beijing use very similar language when speaking of the West or the US. However, we should analyse carefully what drives them. For example, economically, the two countries want to increase their independence from the West but they do not play in the same league, with China clearly having the upper hand between them.

One key aspect in their bilateral discussions is energy. China is in need of oil and gas which it is importing from Russia among others. Meanwhile Moscow is seeking to diversify its energy exports away from the EU, given our energy transition commitments and the overall tensions in our relationship. But doing so will not be easy or quick, given that the investments in infrastructure needed to diversify are enormous. Beijing is also developing agreements with the energy powers of Central Asia, which is a traditional Russian back yard.

However, we would be wrong to analyse this relationship only from an economic point of view. The Chinese-Russian rapprochement is above all based on a rejection of democratic values and an opposition to what they see as ‘interference’ in their internal affairs.


"The rivalry between Washington and Beijing is unfolding on many fronts, but it doesn’t mean this will replicate the bipolar world of the Cold War."


The rivalry between Washington and Beijing is unfolding on many fronts, but it doesn’t mean this will replicate the bipolar world of the Cold War. For one, Russia was never an economic rival nor a major trade partner for the West while today China is the world’s second economic power and indeed a crucial trade partner for both the US and EU. Besides, also in political terms, the world today is not binary but multipolar.

How the EU should navigate the emerging strategic landscape

From the point of view of EU-China relations, the developments this week showed our divergence over values that form the basis of our respective worldviews and political systems. But this does not mean we cannot cooperate in some areas and even less that we have an interest in pushing Russia and China closer together. Indeed, as I have said many times, with China we should stick to the ‘partner, competitor, rival’ framework. It is, moreover, interesting to note that the US now uses a similar trilogy when referring to their approach to China. With Russia, we should ‘push back, constrain and engage’.


"As EU, our preference is always for cooperative relationships, based on agreed rules. But we should also be clear about the often adversarial nature of the relationships and the strategic intent that China and Russia have."


There are clearly significant policy areas that require effective cooperation with both China and Russia (from climate change, to COVID-19 to various security challenges). And as EU, our preference is always for cooperative relationships, based on agreed rules. But we should also be clear about the often adversarial nature of the relationships and the strategic intent that China and Russia have. All this is part of us ‘learning to speak the language of power’ and developing our strategic autonomy.

A new chapter in EU-Turkey relations?

The news has been somewhat better on another front where we had many tensions before, namely EU-Turkey relations. With EU Ministers, we agreed that there has been an improvement when it comes to the overall rhetoric used and the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. At the same time, we have seen very worrying decisions domestically, notably the crackdown on the democratic opposition party HDP and the announced withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention – nomen est omen – protecting women’s rights. I had a long conversation with the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu after the FAC where we discussed these issues and the Cyprus question, following my recent visit there.


"We need to continue engaging actively with Turkey to ensure we get and sustain a more constructive attitude."


I am convinced that we need to continue engaging actively with Turkey to ensure we get and sustain a more constructive attitude. At the European Council, leaders welcomed the report that I presented as High Representative together with the Commission as the right basis for their conclusions and they agreed that given Turkey’s more constructive attitude recently we should aim for engagement in areas of common interests, from the functioning of the customs union to migration plus other areas of mutual interests. We do so through a phased, proportionate, but also reversible approach, should Turkey return to a path of confrontation. On this clear basis, I will now work actively on all relevant tracks, including the work on the Eastern Mediterranean Conference and the wider regional aspects.

One key case where we need Turkey to act in a more constructive way is Libya. After ten years of conflict, the people of Libya have a new chance with the establishment of a unity government and the political transition underway. We all need to do our utmost to use this window of opportunity as I discussed with Prime Minister Al Debaiba who heads the new government of national unity. Turkey has been a major actor in Libya including through military intervention. Now we need to see what we as EU can do additionally including, if asked by the UN, to help monitor the ceasefire.

EU-US relations are clearly back on track

The other major plank of last week’s heightened diplomatic activities was EU-US cooperation, with Secretary of State Tony Blinken in town. We were both at the NATO Ministerial Meeting discussing Russia. And we had our first face-to-face meeting (or mask-to-mask, as we say these days), covering the full spectrum of issues on which we need to cooperate. Regarding China, it was striking that US policy has essentially converged on the EU ‘triad’ with both sides agreeing that ‘relations with China are multifaceted, comprising elements of cooperation, competition, and systemic rivalry.’ We decided to restart our dedicated dialogue on China and the challenges and opportunities it presents.

We also discussed Iran and how to get the nuclear deal back on track as well the various crises in our Eastern neighbourhood (Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus), Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean plus Venezuela, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Ethiopia as set out in our joint press statement.


"The meeting with Secretary Blinken was very encouraging and also operational. It confirmed that transatlantic relations are back on track."


The meeting with Secretary Blinken was very encouraging and also operational. It confirmed that transatlantic relations are back on track. I was especially pleased by the extent to which this US administration wants to revitalize our partnership, by listening to our views and seeking convergence. The US has always been our most strategic relationship and therefore it matters that there is now a clear desire to invest in working together. It is quite fitting to hear Blinken describe the EU ‘as partner of first resort.’

This positive mood was also confirmed in the discussion between EU leaders and President Biden. He reconfirmed, as he has done before, the interest and commitment of his administration to strengthen EU-US cooperation, based on our shared democratic values and our common interests. That positive message and commitment was echoed by the EU side. The task ahead now is to flesh out this shared desire for transatlantic action. 


It is important and re-assuring to know that EU-US cooperation is solid, precisely when we see a world in flux with authoritarian powers seeking to assert themselves more and more. Everything that happened this week reinforces the need for Europe to build partnerships and strengthen its capacities to confront a challenging world.

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