What to talk about when there is nothing to talk about?


Cai Guodong / Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images

Why Josep Borrell's visit to Beijing has been postponed.

Just a few days before the visit of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell to Beijing scheduled for July 10, the Chinese Foreign Ministry informed the EU Foreign Office that it would not be possible to make the trip within the specified time frame. According to a written statement by Nabila Massrali, spokesperson for Borrell's office, they will now have to look for other possibilities for the trip.

"Unfortunately, we have been informed by our Chinese counterparts that it is no longer possible to carry out the visit on the planned dates next week," the statement said.

As early as July 4, news agencies around the world were reporting on Borrell's scheduled July 10 trip to Beijing, that he was to hold talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, as well as other Chinese officials.

Moreover, this information was disseminated with reference to an official source – EU Ambassador to China Jorge Toledo. "Josep Borrell will arrive in Beijing on Monday and meet with Foreign Minister Qin Gang and other senior officials," the Bloomberg agency quoted Toledo as saying on July 4. During the meeting they were to discuss "strategic issues," including human rights and the situation in Ukraine, the agency quoted the EU ambassador in Beijing as saying. On the same day, Beijing refused to receive Borrell.

A little earlier, speaking at the 11th World Peace Forum in Beijing, Toledo said Brussels would continue to raise issues of a strategic nature with China, among them respect for human rights and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

It is as if the European Union does not hear China's warnings: these are not topics for discussion. Of course, we have repeatedly pointed out in Beijing that we can listen to all of this, but our views on these subjects have long been known and diverge from those of Europe. What is the point of taking up time in negotiations with idle chatter?

In addition, Europe has not heeded Beijing's calls for conducting a more independent foreign policy, proceeding from European interests, not looking to Washington and adhering to pragmatic views on the development of economic cooperation. Not to politicize trade and investment, not to monkey around with the sanctions imposed by the United States.

Moreover, Europe continues to discuss a strategy toward China that boils down to containment and rivalry according to Washington's standards. On the one hand, Brussels promises China not to break the existing economic relations, but on the other hand, it imposes a whole range of conditions. The notorious observance of human rights in their European definition, refusal to return Taiwan to the bosom of the motherland and putting pressure on Russia on the issue of Ukraine.

At the end of June (i.e., just before Borrell's planned visit), the conclusions of the European Council were published, which considered the principal directions of relations with China. Brussels views China as a partner, a competitor, and a systemic rival at the same time. And the emphasis here seems to be on the latter two points. "The European Union and China remain important trade and economic partners. The European Union will seek to ensure a level playing field so that trade and economic relations are balanced, reciprocal and mutually beneficial," the EU document says. And at the same time, "In line with the Versailles Agenda, the European Union will continue to reduce critical dependencies and vulnerabilities, including in its supply chains, and will de-risk and diversify where necessary and appropriate. The European Union does not intend to disengage or turn inward." That is, on the one hand, Brussels realizes that it will not be possible to destroy the annual trade turnover of more than 800 billion euros overnight, because it would mean the collapse of the European economy, but they intend to constantly reduce it and "diversify."

As for Ukraine: "As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China has a special responsibility to uphold the rules-based international order, the United Nations Charter and international law. The European Council therefore calls on China to put pressure on Russia to stop its war of aggression and immediately, fully and unconditionally withdraw its troops from Ukraine."

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has repeatedly asked its European partners to decipher what the "rules-based international order" is and what its basic principles are. But there has been no response so far. And this is what Borrell's office is proposing as one of the topics of negotiations. On the Ukrainian conflict, China has unveiled its peace plan for a settlement. "Unconditional withdrawal of troops" is not envisioned there. But it is as if Brussels knows nothing about this and does not want to know.

And finally, the old song about human rights. "The European Union remains firmly committed to promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The European Council welcomes the resumption of the human rights dialogue with China. It reiterates its concerns about forced labor, the treatment of human rights defenders and persons belonging to minorities, the situation in Tibet and Xinjiang, and compliance with China's previous commitments related to Hong Kong." Chinese officials have repeatedly tried to reason with the Europeans to stay out of China's internal affairs. They even patiently explained that there is no problem of national minorities in these regions of China. They are ensured by the PRC Constitution, as well as numerous development programs for these autonomous regions, which guarantee advanced economic and infrastructural development. But it is all "like talking to the wall" to the Europeans. They do not want to hear anything and say their own things. And since that is the case, the Chinese do not want to discuss it at the negotiations. As they say: what to talk about when there is nothing to talk about.

In general terms, given this position of Brussels, the importance of visits by EU officials and talks on political topics is steadily declining. However, not so long ago, the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, visited Beijing. And that was enough for an exchange of views. Nothing more than that.

The visits of the French president and the German chancellor to Beijing were much more fruitful. Because they mainly discussed economic issues and did not focus on human rights.

Without seeing much point in going into unprepared negotiations with EU structures and discussing the proposed agenda, China is increasingly talking directly to European business, which is interested in preserving trade and economic ties and, consequently, stabilizing political relations. Just before Borrell's failed visit, a number of significant events took place in China. About 200 representatives of Chinese and European small and medium-sized enterprises participated in the China-European Forum on Sustainable Development. On June 29-July 3, the 19th Western China International Fair was held in Chengdu, with about 30,000 Chinese and foreign participants from 73 countries. The 17th EU-China Business and Technology Cooperation Fair was also organized there on June 30-July 1, attended by more than 2,000 representatives, including officials, experts and entrepreneurs from China and Europe.

As for Borel, this is the second visit to China this year that did not take place. As we remember, before his first trip to Beijing, scheduled for April, he directly made the quality of EU-China relations depend on Beijing's position on the Ukrainian issue. Immediately he got COVID and didn't go. Now it seems that the Chinese are giving him another opportunity to think carefully before he goes. Maybe he will reach the level of at least Secretary of State Blinken. Then they will invite him.