China likely to respond in kind to EU sanctions on Xinjiang, observers say

Sarah Zheng
·4-min read

China would have to take “resolute but moderate” countermeasures if the European Union decided to impose sanctions over human rights abuses in Xinjiang, observers said, after Beijing’s envoy to the 27-member bloc warned Brussels not to interfere in China’s internal affairs.

During an event at the Brussels-based think tank European Policy Centre on Tuesday, China’s ambassador to the EU Zhang Ming said he was “deeply concerned” about proposed sanctions by the European Union against Chinese officials over Beijing’s repression of ethnic minorities in the region, a move he described as “confrontational”.

“Sanctions based on lies could be interpreted as deliberately undermining China’s security and development interests,” he said. “We want dialogue, not confrontation. We ask the EU side to think twice. If some insist on confrontation, we will not back down as we have no options other than fulfilling our responsibilities to the people in our country.”

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Zhang’s remarks followed reported agreement by senior EU officials to sanctions – including a travel ban and asset freezes – over China’s activities in Xinjiang, which will be further discussed at a meeting of the EU ministers on March 22.

There has been growing international criticism of Beijing’s treatment of ethnic Uygurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, with the Dutch parliament becoming the first in Europe to pass a non-binding action characterising Chinese actions there as amounting to “genocide”.

Zhang also said there had been negotiations for the EU member states’ ambassadors to visit the remote western region of Xinjiang, which has notoriously been difficult for foreign journalists and diplomats to access without official approval and supervision. While “almost everything” had been arranged for the trip, he said the EU side had insisted on a meeting with an individual who had been convicted under Chinese law, terms that Beijing found “unacceptable”.

“Almost everything has been arranged,” Zhang said. “But I’m so sorry that the EU mission in Beijing raised an unacceptable request, so that is not acceptable. But anyway Xinjiang is open, open for European ambassadors, open for foreign diplomats, journalists, and tourists, open to anyone.”

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Chinese analysts said Beijing would be likely to announce its own sanctions if the EU formally sanctioned Chinese officials on Xinjiang, but that it would take a more moderated response because China’s relationship with the European Union had much more room for cooperation than with the US.

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University, said it was still uncertain whether the European Union would officially introduce the sanctions, and even then they would be limited to Xinjiang.

“At that time, China would definitely take correspondingly ‘resolute but limited’ countermeasures,” Shi said. “China-European relations are not the same as China-US relations, which are almost entirely confrontational, so China will only partially counter-attack.”

While the European Union had in 2019 characterised China as its “systemic rival”, Shi said there was still “a lot of room for cooperation” between the two sides.

EU should not let others interfere in relations with China, Wang Yi says

Zhu Yongbiao, a professor of international relations at Lanzhou University, said Zhang seemed to signal that if the European Union introduced sanctions on Chinese officials, the Chinese side would take reciprocal countermeasures.

“This is similar to when the US introduced a sanctions list against China, and China also published a sanctions list against the US,” he said. “If the European Union also sanctions Chinese entities, then China will similarly sanction relevant businesses.”

Wang Yiwei, a professor in European studies at Renmin University, said Europe was full of anxiety towards China, including over its initial response to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China’s Wolf Warrior diplomacy, Beijing’s mask and vaccine diplomacy efforts, as well as China’s messaging that its political system was superior to those in the West.

“China still needs to treat Europe and the US differently,” he said. “China still has to fight for Europe, and should strengthen dialogue and understanding from legal and regulatory levels.”

The EU and China concluded talks in December for a landmark investment deal – the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment – that still needs to be formally ratified by the European Parliament.

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