EU states seek fine balance over China crackdown on Hong Kong

The bloc is not inclined to risk an important economic relationship with China

Heiko Maas

European Union foreign ministers debated Friday ways to manage tense relations with China as it asserts more control over Hong Kong and amid concern about Beijing’s influence over EU officials. The ministers, holding talks via videoconference, are weighing the need for firm policy against the damage that it might do to business ties between the Asian economic giant and the world’s biggest trading bloc.

The 27 EU nations are often divided in their approach to China, but Beijing’s imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong - a Chinese territory that is supposed to have a high degree of autonomy under a “one-country, two systems” framework - seems to have united them.

 “Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy cannot be undermined. We expect the freedoms and rights for the citizens to be protected through their basic law and the ‘one country, two systems’ principle,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Friday.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who is chairing the meeting, said earlier this week that the bloc needs a “more robust strategy” toward China amid signs that Asia is replacing the United States as the center of global power. Borrell said that relations between Brussels and Beijing aren’t always based on trust, transparency and reciprocity, and that “we only have a chance if we deal with China with collective discipline.”

Nevertheless,  the bloc is treading a fine line due to its important economic relationship with China - the EU's second largest trading partner. And unlike Washington, Brussels is unlikely to threaten Beijing with sanctions at this stage.

"I don't think sanctions against China is going to be the solution to our problems with China," Borrell told EU lawmakers.

Additionally, Maas indicated that a high-profile summit with China would likely go ahead nonetheless.

Meanwhile, earlier on Friday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam issued a letter addressed to "Fellow citizens," explaining her support of Beijing's latest move. In the letter, which was circulated widely by local news organisations and via the government's website, Lam called Hong Kong "the home we all treasure," defined by "its Lion Rock spirit" - a reference to shared local core values. In her appeal, Lam lamented that Hong Kong's community had been traumatised by a year of protests.

She outlined how violence by rioters had escalated and said that opposition forces and organisations calling for Hong Kong's "independence" and "self determination" were blatantly challenging Central authorities as well as Hong Kong's own government.

Lam said that in view of the current political and social situation, it was difficult for Hong Kong's executive and legislative authorities to complete their own legislation to safeguard national security in the foreseeable future. 

"Fellow citizens, every country has its own laws to safeguard national security for the long-term security of their country and the stability of people's lives," she added.

Lam's letter comes a day after a joint statement was made by leaders from Britain, the US, Canada and Australia, reiterating their "deep concern" regarding Beijing's decision to impose a national security law in Hong Kong. The joint statement charges that direct imposition of the law, by bypassing Hong Kong's own institutions, would curtail the liberties of Hong Kong citizens, eroding the autonomy and system which had made Hong Kong prosperous. 

Later on Friday, US President Donald Trump is due to hold a news conference on China, after announcing that "we will be making certain decisions." US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced earlier this week that Hong Kong would no longer be considered as having political autonomy from China, a move that would lead to it losing special treatment under US law.

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