EU, China relations suddenly come tumbling down

The European Union (EU) announced a tranche of new international sanctions on March 22 that included punitive measures against four senior politicians in China’s Xinjiang region, where critics claim Beijing is involved in extensive abuses against ethnic minority Uighur Muslims. 

Minutes after the EU’s announcement, Beijing revealed its own sanctions against nearly a dozen EU and European politicians, including five senior lawmakers, members of the EU Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights as well as leading academics. 

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told a press conference that Beijing’s immediate retaliation has created “a new atmosphere” and  “new situation” for EU-China relations. That new reality, analysts suggest, could jeopardize a new investment pact the two sides agreed to in principle in December.

Some already see the tit-for-tat sanctions as a watershed moment for Brussels, which until now has distanced itself from America’s recent more robust and punitive approach to China.  

Under the Biden administration, the US has stepped up its criticism of Beijing and exerted greater energy in building a cohort of democratic nations to rival China’s power in the Indo-Pacific.

That was seen in the first-ever “Quad” summit meeting held between the US, India, Japan and Australia earlier this month. While the Biden administration has called China’s mistreatment of Uighur Muslims a “genocide”, the EU has so far avoided the term.

Still, Brussels is the latest victim of Beijing’s so-called “wolf-warrior” diplomacy, where Foreign Ministry officials have been allowed by Beijing to respond to foreign criticism more forcefully and aggressively. 

“The EU’s move, based on nothing but lies and disinformation, disregards and distorts facts, grossly interferes in China’s internal affairs, flagrantly breaches international law and basic norms governing international relations, and severely undermines China-EU relations,” a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Monday.

According to China’s Foreign Ministry, sanctioned EU and European individuals will be barred from entering mainland China as well as Hong Kong and Macau and “companies and institutions” associated with them will be banned from doing business in China.

Details of who exactly Beijing has sanctioned are unclear but it is known that the punitive measures include members of the European Council’s Political and Security Committee, composed of ambassadorial-level representatives from member states, as well as five members of the European Parliament, including the prominent head of the body’s China delegation Reinhard Bütikofer.