From the South China Morning Post:

  • Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi tries to counter US lobbying and a ‘new cold war’ while pushing belt and road projects to pandemic-ravaged EU nations
  • China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang emerge as issues for politicians in Italy and the Netherlands

Kinling LO

Published: 6:00am, 27 Aug, 2020

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is lobbying his European counterparts for support amid a geopolitical spat with the United States  but he has been met with concerns over human rights and 5G technology security.

Wang arrived in the Netherlands on Wednesday after beginning his first European tour of the pandemic era in Italy on Tuesday, when he met Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio. His week-long trip will continue with stops in Norway, France and Germany. On his visit to Italy,Wang warned the country to stay away from the “new cold war” that he said the US was trying to promote, and to instead to focus on economic cooperation with China. Wang also applauded Italy for showing “understanding and support” towards Beijing’s “core interests and major issues”.

While Di Maio said Italy and China needed to forge closer ties, he also gave Wang a stern warning that China ought to respect Hong Kong citizens’ freedom of speech – signalling the European Union’s continued disapproval of the national security law Beijing imposed on the city.

Wang’s visit follows criticism of Beijing in Europe over its handling of the coronavirus as well as China’s hardline policy in Hong Kong. More European countries are also rejecting Chinese 5G technology. Beijing has rejected claims that it covered up the pandemic after the first outbreak was recorded in China and denied security concerns related to its technology development. It has also deemed international concerns about the erosion of autonomy in Hong Kong an intervention in its internal affairs.

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Wang’s visit follows three recent European trips during the pandemic by high-level US officials – two by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and one by national security adviser Robert O’Brien – who tried to build a transatlantic alliance against China.

“On the so-called new cold war … China has no intention in launching any new cold war. We are resolutely opposed to any promotion of a new cold war,” Wang said in Rome, without naming the US.Wang told his Italian host to work closely with Beijing on projects under the Belt and Road Initiative, as Italy tries to revive its pandemic-ravaged economy. However, neither Wang nor Di Maio mentioned 5G networks or Italy’s actions concerning Huawei Technologies , the Chinese telecoms giant, and the development of an Italian system. Such reticence to discuss tech cooperation highlights Beijing’s looming challenge to expand cooperation with European countries while Washington is asking its allies not to work with Huawei for security reasons.

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Nicola Casarini, a senior fellow for Asia at Italian think tank Istituto Affari Internazionali, said domestic politics had helped drive Italy to give a low-profile response on the Huawei question as it tried to balance working with China on economic recovery with avoiding sending an “unfriendly message” to Washington.

“[The] current Italian government – due to vested interests of its main coalition party – is unable to ban Huawei from Italy,” Casarini said. “But following intense pressure from the Trump administration in recent weeks, Italy has begun adopting an approach similar to that taken by France some weeks ago, that is the question of Huawei is not presented as a political ban – for fear of antagonising China – but rather as a commercial decision, asking telecom networks to be free of Huawei gear by around 2028.”

Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, said it was not necessary to publicly address 5G cooperation with European countries in this visit. “We should respect Italy’s position. At least they did not publicly politicise the 5G matter,” Cui said. “It is not necessary to publicly discuss 5G cooperation [during Wang’s visit]. Talks about other economic cooperation are also great. “China would certainly welcome discussions on 5G though, if European counterparts would like to raise the topic.” During the rest of the trip, Wang was expected to continue pushing the charm offensive by showing determination to cooperate economically with his European counterparts. Wang is likely to lobby the Dutch government to renew an export licence for the sale of critical chip-making technology to China.

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On Tuesday, a group of Dutch lawmakers were planning to invoke a rarely used rule to “invite” Wang as a visiting foreign official to a meeting with the legislature’s foreign affairs committee to discuss human rights issues, including on Hong Kong and Uygur Muslims in Xinjiang. Wang rejected the invitation. Lucrezia Poggetti, an analyst at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), said she expected Hong Kong and human rights to be “contentious issues” throughout Wang’s trip in Europe.

Kinling Lo is a China reporter covering diplomacy and society news for the Post. She joined the team in 2016 as a cadet reporter.

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