Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Fee, says she desires to guide a “geopolitical commission”. However Ms Von der Leyen concluded 2020 by sending a really terrible geopolitical message — as her fee signed off on an investment treaty between the EU and China.

Over the previous 12 months, China has crushed the liberty of Hong Kong, intensified oppression in Xinjiang, killed Indian troops, threatened Taiwan and sanctioned Australia. By signing a take care of China nonetheless, the EU has signalled that it doesn’t care about all that. As Janka Oertel, director of the Asia programme on the European Council on International Relations think-tank, places it: “This can be a large diplomatic win for China.”

It’s also a substantial kick within the enamel for Joe Biden. The US president-elect has careworn that, after Donald Trump, he desires to make a recent begin with Europe. Particularly, the Biden administration desires to work on China points along with fellow democracies. Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s nationwide safety adviser, issued a last-minute plea for the Europeans to carry off on signing the deal — a minimum of till that they had an opportunity to debate it with the brand new administration. He was ignored. 

EU officers provide a number of justifications for his or her determination. They are saying that most of the concessions the EU has acquired from China have already been granted to the US, as a part of America’s personal “phase-one” trade deal. (These embrace sectoral openings in a number of industries, in addition to modifications to joint-venture necessities.) Brussels officers level out that the US didn’t ask for European permission earlier than concluding its personal take care of China. They justify the EU’s determination as an indication of “strategic autonomy”. 

These EU arguments sound tough-minded. However, actually, they’re naive. It’s naive to imagine that China will respect the settlement it has signed. It’s naive to disregard the geopolitical implications of doing a take care of China proper now. And it’s naive to suppose that the darkening political local weather in Beijing won’t ever have an effect on life in Brussels or Berlin.

The EU says that this deal will “discipline the behaviour” of China’s state-owned enterprises, which is able to now be required “to behave in accordance with industrial concerns”. However China made very similar commitments when it joined the World Commerce Group in 2001. Pledges to rein in state subsidies made 20 years in the past at the moment are being supplied up once more as recent concessions. Beijing’s promise to “work in direction of” implementing worldwide conventions on labour requirements are additionally laughably weak. As Shi Yinhong, a distinguished Chinese language tutorial, pointed out: “On labour, it’s unimaginable for China to agree. Are you able to think about China with free commerce unions?” 

Over the previous 12 months, China has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to disregard treaty commitments. Its new nationwide safety legislation violates an settlement with Britain that assured the autonomy of Hong Kong. China has additionally imposed tariffs on Australian items in violation of the China-Australia free trade agreement

The timing of this deal is beautiful for Beijing, because it presents the Biden staff with a fait accompli. Reinhard Bütikofer, chairman of the European parliament’s delegation on China, says: “We’ve allowed China to drive an enormous wedge between the US and Europe.”

The EU-China deal was pushed laborious by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and concluded proper on the finish of her nation’s presidency of the EU. Ms Merkel is seen as a champion of liberal values. However her strategy to China is essentially pushed by commerce. She is aware of that the German automotive business has had a tough few years, and China is its largest market. 

Ms Merkel’s willpower to press forward can also replicate her personal scepticism about the way forward for the US. In a speech in 2017, she mentioned that Europe could no longer rely on America. The election of Mr Biden has most likely not modified that view. Many Europeans additionally imagine that the US is on the point of a brand new chilly warfare with China — and wish little a part of that. 

A few of these arguments are cheap sufficient. It’s laborious to take a look at present occasions in Washington and really feel completely assured concerning the stability of the US or the Atlantic alliance. A European need to keep away from army confrontation within the Pacific can be rational. 

However counting on an American safety assure in Europe, whereas undermining American safety coverage within the Pacific, doesn’t appear to be a clever or sustainable coverage over the long term.

The Europeans are additionally kidding themselves in the event that they suppose they are often blind to the more and more authoritarian and aggressive nature of Xi Jinping’s China. For the previous 70 years, Europeans have benefited from the truth that the world’s strongest nation is a liberal democracy. If an authoritarian nation, akin to China, displaces America because the dominant international energy, then democracies everywhere in the world will really feel the results. 

Even within the present geopolitical order, China has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to make use of its financial energy as a strategic weapon. By deepening their financial reliance on China — with out co-ordinating their coverage with fellow democracies — European nations are rising their vulnerability to stress from Beijing. That could be a remarkably shortsighted determination to make, for a “geopolitical fee”.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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