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China seen as trying to box out Biden

Expert describes Xi’s investment agreement with EU as a ‘geopolitical coup’ by The New York Times | January 4, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

A trade pact with 14 other Asian nations. A pledge to join other countries in reducing carbon emissions to fight global warming. Now, an investment agreement with the European Union.

China's leader, Xi Jinping, has in recent weeks made deals and pledges that he hopes will position his country as an indispensable global leader, even after its handling of the coronavirus and increased belligerence at home and abroad have damaged its international standing.

In doing so, he has underlined how difficult it will be for President-elect Joe Biden to forge a united front with allies against China's authoritarian policies and trade practices, a central focus of the new administration's plan to compete with Beijing and check its rising power.

The image of Xi joining Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Emmanuel Macron of France and other European leaders in a conference call Wednesday to seal the deal with the European Union also amounted to a stinging rebuke of the Trump administration's efforts to isolate China's Communist Party state.

The deals show the leverage Xi has because of the strength of the Chinese economy, which is the fastest-growing among major nations as the world continues to struggle with the pandemic.

Noah Barkin, a China expert in Berlin with the Rhodium Group, called the investment agreement in particular "a geopolitical coup for China." Chinese companies already enjoyed greater access to European markets -- a core complaint in Europe -- so they won only modest openings in manufacturing and the growing market for renewable energies. The real achievement for China is diplomatic.

China had to make only modest concessions to overcome increasingly vocal concerns about its harshest policies, including the crackdown on Hong Kong and the mass detentions and forced labor of Uighurs in Xinjiang, the western Chinese region.

"It would be wrong to see these Chinese concessions as a significant shift in policy," Barkin said. "Over the past year, we have seen the party tighten its grip over the economy, double down on state-owned enterprises and launch a new push for self-reliance. That is the direction of policy that Xi has mapped out, and it would be naive to believe that this deal will change that."

Instead, China has demonstrated once again that it pays little or no diplomatic cost for abuses that violate European values. The Europeans finalized the investment agreement, for example, a day after the EU publicly criticized the harsh prison sentence handed down to a Chinese lawyer who reported on the initial coronavirus outbreak in the city of Wuhan.

Australia faced a similar trade-off in November when it signed up for the Asian trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, even as China waged a campaign of economic coercion against the country.

China's vast economic and diplomatic influence, especially at this time of global crisis, means that countries feel they have little choice but to engage with it, regardless of their unease over the character of Xi's hard-line rule. The Asian trade pact, for example, while limited in scope, covers more of humanity -- 2.2 billion people -- than any previous one.

"The values we all cherish in our Sunday sermons must be adhered to if we are not to fall victim to a new systemic rival," said Reinhard Butikofer, a German member of the European Parliament who has spoken out against the European investment agreement with China.

"I think the understanding is increasing," he added, "but how to respond is not yet clear."

China's overtures will not end the anger over its repressive policies, including its documented use of forced labor. They could mollify China's critics, though, by using the lure of commercial profit in a country whose economy has rebounded from the pandemic more robustly than others' have.

That would also undercut Biden, who already must overcome four years of frustration in Europe over President Donald Trump's go-it-alone approach in confronting China's actions at home and abroad.

Xi, of course, has not acknowledged that any of China's policies have eroded global trust. Nor have officials signaled any reconsideration of its core policies.

The country's "Wolf Warrior" diplomacy, named after a pair of jingoistic action movies, shows no sign of relenting. Australia still faces China's wrath, as does Canada over the detention of the chief financial officer of Chinese technology giant Huawei at the behest of the United States.

A survey by the Pew Research Center in October found that in 14 economically advanced countries, unfavorable attitudes toward China had reached their highest levels in more than a decade. A median of 78% of those surveyed said they had little or no confidence that Xi would do the right thing in world affairs. (89% felt the same way about Trump.)

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