China envoy urges EU to develop its ‘strategic autonomy’

BRUSSELS — China’s envoy to the European Union today urged the 27-nation bloc to deepen its ties with his country even further and said that he hoped the EU’s desire for “strategic autonomy” will guide its foreign policy in the future.

The EU is China’s biggest trading partner, but they also are economic competitors, and as Beijing has become more assertive in recent years the bloc has struggled to balance its commercial interests with a country that it sees as “a systemic rival” and has human rights concerns about.

The two sealed a major investment agreement in December, but the EU expressed concerns about freedom of expression, the intimidation of journalists, as well as the detention of human rights defenders, lawyers, and intellectuals in China.

“China and the EU are comprehensive and strategic partners with 45 years of diplomatic ties. The China-EU relationship has stood the test of time and has a solid basis and a value of its own. It’s not attached to any other major country relations,” Chinese Ambassador Zhang Ming said.

Speaking at a Friends of Europe think-tank event, Zhang said the “EU is a strong advocate for strategic autonomy and open cooperation. Hopefully such a spirit will continue to guide the EU’s foreign policy and contribute to world stability and development.”

As the Trump administration abandoned international agreements and organizations, raising tensions with its allies at NATO, French President Emmanuel Macron underlined the need for Europe to have “strategic autonomy” and better manage its own security needs.

The term has sown confusion about Europe’s intentions, with some countries seeing it as a by-word for acting independently from the United States, others for greater trade protectionism, or even for breaking away from the NATO military alliance. EU foreign ministers are still trying to establish exactly what it means.

Critics say the investment deal, which will give European businesses about the same level of market access in China as those from the United States, risks raising tensions with President Joe Biden’s administration after the EU proposed a trans-Atlantic dialogue to address “the strategic challenge presented by China’s growing international assertiveness.”

Zhang welcomed Biden’s decision to return the United States to the Paris climate change agreement and the World Health Organization, and said he hoped that Biden will help to bring China-U.S. relations “back to a sound and steady track.”

“Confrontation will lead us to a dead end. In addressing the current crises and building back better, the whole of mankind must work together in solidarity,” he said.

Zhang also said that he hopes Beijing’s European friends can take a closer look at his country’s culture, history and realities and “see China in an objective, rational and respectful light; bear in mind the importance of EU-China cooperation for the two sides and the world.”

“It is totally unacceptable to attack and discredit China by lying for political and personal gains,” he said.