The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China is trying to mend fences in Europe. It’s not going well.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, right, with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Berlin on Tuesday. (Michael Sohn/AFP/Getty Images)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — In Rome, ­China's top diplomat was pressed on the question of autonomy and freedoms in Hong Kong. In Paris, he was asked about Beijing's treatment of the Muslim-minority Uighurs. In Berlin, he was chastised by the German foreign minister for making threatening remarks toward European officials.

Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, headed home Tuesday from a five-stop European tour that had been designed to mend fences with European governments — or at least wage a charm offensive after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a Cold War-style alliance of Western democracies to counter China.

But the reception in Europe was decidedly chilly.

Dogged by questions about ­human rights and Hong Kong — and a distracting feud with Czech politicians over Taiwan — Wang’s week-long trip highlighted just how polarizing China has become in Europe, a swing state in the sprawling geopolitical contest between Beijing and Washington.

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The 27-member European Union, with a larger economy than the United States or China, has been viewed by Beijing as a more pragmatic and potentially pliable partner than overtly hostile Washington.

“Beijing sees Europe as the biggest prize to be secured in the current stage of U.S.-China rivalry,” said Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. “But Beijing squandered it.”

After he met Wang last week, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech calling on Europe to bolster homegrown 5G technology — a field led by the Chinese firm Huawei. On Wednesday, German officials unveiled an “Indo-Pacific” cooperation strategy that would reduce reliance on China.

“Wang Yi’s visit didn’t achieve minimum goals,” Benner said. “He didn’t have anything substantial to offer that Europeans care about, like concessions on market access, and just reiterated tired and worn boilerplate cliches on Europe and China working together on multilateralism that hardly anyone falls for anymore.”

Expectations had been high as Wang departed Beijing last week.

Chinese state media framed the foreign minister’s first overseas trip since the coronavirus pandemic as a “crucial” diplomatic expedition to counter Pompeo’s efforts to sow “hatred” of China around the world. Pompeo had visited Europe the week prior, in mid-August, to press his own case for a transatlantic coalition.

Many European governments did agree that they would continue to work with China. And Wang responded by offering to cooperate with Europe on vaccine development, green energy, and a sweeping investment deal that could bring economic benefits during the post-pandemic recovery period and beyond.

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But in stop after stop, Wang had to deflect questions about China’s tough new national security legislation in Hong Kong, policies in Xinjiang or the origins of the novel coronavirus, which he suggested could have come from outside China.

At a think tank in Paris on Sunday, Wang lamented that the United States has been “coercing other countries to take sides” and stoke conflict. “We never wanted to engage in a new Cold War with anyone,” Wang said.

But the trip became sidetracked by a moment that echoed the Cold War days.

Midway through his European sojourn, Wang warned a Czech delegation that they would “pay a heavy price” for traveling to Taiwan — which China claims as its territory and has sought to diplomatically isolate.

Officials in countries including Germany and France reacted with anger. The mayor of Prague shot back with a brusque letter demanding an apology. Milos Vystrcil, the Czech Senate speaker, responded Tuesday with a defiant speech in Taipei in support of Taiwan’s democratic “values.”

“I am Taiwanese,” Vystrcil told the Taiwanese parliament in Mandarin, channeling President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 declaration in West Berlin: “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Hours later in the outskirts of Berlin, Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, voiced “full solidarity” with the Czechs. “In the European Union we deal with our international partners together and with respect,” Maas told reporters as Wang stood nearby. “Threats do not fit in here.”

Maas followed up with pointed criticisms of Chinese actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, which Wang resolutely defended as internal Chinese affairs.

“The firm line from Maas was not a surprise,” said Noah Barkin, an analyst on China-Europe relations at the Rhodium Group consulting firm. “But this is a new tone from Berlin.”

In recent months, Chinese academics and former officials have openly pondered and, at times, gently rebuked the stridently nationalist approach, informally known in China as “wolf warrior diplomacy,” saying it has hurt China’s international standing.

In a widely circulated essay published online last month, Long Yongtu, a former trade representative who negotiated China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, wondered if China struggled on so many diplomatic fronts because it had grown less grounded.

“We Chinese should learn to be unperturbed, sincere, calm,” Long wrote. “A bureaucrat who is suddenly promoted, or an entrepreneur who gets rich, sometimes no longer knows the height of heaven and the thickness of the earth. They lose touch. What looks like polish is actually a lack of self-confidence.”

Barkin said pressure was mounting on Beijing to find a better formula with Europe.

“That backlash and the prospect of a new U.S. administration that embraces cooperation with allies increases the chances of a transatlantic coalition to counter China,” Barkin said, referring to a possible Democratic victory in November. “Beijing must see this as a growing risk.”

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