BRUSSELS — The European Union Tuesday imposed sanctions on China over its treatment of Hong Kong, inching the bloc closer to the Trump administration’s more hawkish stance toward Beijing. The new sanctions, which are limited in scope, come on the same day as EU and Chinese officials held a round of talks on a long-discussed investment agreement that the bloc hopes would give its companies greater and fairer access to the vast market. EU officials have said Beijing’s reluctance in those areas endangers ties.
A Chinese statement on the talks said “fruitful results and consensus” were achieved on the investment agreement and other topics.
European Commission Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said the two sides still “need to address sticking points such as reciprocity in the way our companies are treated.”
The EU last year labeled China a “systemic rival” and has since increased screening of Chinese investments. Brussels has warned Beijing that without the investment agreement it won’t sign up to new economic agreements.
Europe’s new Hong Kong sanctions include limiting exports of equipment China could use for repression and reassessing extradition arrangements in light of Beijing’s imposition of a draconian national security law. The U.K., which this year left the EU, recently suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong.
EU governments will work to ease visa and asylum opportunities for Hong Kong residents. The EU indicated it could take further steps at the end of the year.
China’s mission to the EU didn’t immediately comment on the sanctions. Earlier this month a spokesperson for the mission said that charges by the leader of the EU parliament that the new security law undermines freedom and the rule of law “distorts facts” because Beijing’s new law embodies “the spirit of the rule of law.”
European businesses, especially German companies, rely on China’s market for profits and growth, so a deep rupture like that between the U.S. and China appears unlikely. European governments differ in posture toward China and even the EU’s office combating foreign disinformation has struggled to adopt a consistent position on China’s aggressive diplomacy.
But in a sign that EU attitudes toward China are shifting closer to those in the U.S., Brussels and Washington recently began talks on creating a new trans-Atlantic channel to coordinate positions on China. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell proposed the forum last month and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quickly seized on the idea.
“Once we’re confident that we have a shared understanding of the threat that is posed by the Chinese Communist Party, then we can begin to take action,” Mr. Pompeo said after taking up Mr. Borrell’s proposal.
Some European officials worry the EU could become a foil for Washington’s more combative position on China but most believe that the U.S. and Europe share common concerns about Beijing, even though the EU wants to pursue its own policies to address its concerns.
Talks on creating the forum are seen in Brussels as a test of how much trans-Atlantic cooperation is possible on China, in part because the Trump administration has repeatedly criticized Europe over the past three years and imposed tariffs on EU products. Europeans see U.S. recognition that Brussels won’t always follow Washington regarding China as critical to the forum’s success.
Work on the new forum began in earnest last week when Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker, the State Department’s top Europe official, visited Brussels to talk with EU counterparts. Mr. Pompeo said he would like the forum operational in the near future.
Europeans want to keep separate from the trans-Atlantic channel ongoing trans-Atlantic discussions of trade with China and technologies like 5G. They see the forum more as a way to jointly analyze threats posed by China’s increasingly aggressive geopolitical stance and to coordinate responses — not an outright alliance with a unified stance, acting jointly.
Before Mr. Trump took office in 2017 Washington and Brussels routinely discussed such issues, officials on both sides said, so in some ways the channel would resurrect stalled communications.
The EU’s shift on China has been labored, reflecting the 27-country bloc’s consensual approach and the economic stakes for Europe. EU officials have said they don’t want to be drawn into a growing global confrontation between Washington and Beijing.
Coronavirus has hastened Europe’s shift, starting weeks after the pandemic hit in mid-March. The Trump administration had quickly focused blame on China for the spreading the virus but Europe demurred. China’s promotion of its narratives that many European officials felt misrepresented events around the pandemic prompted a rethink in Brussels.
In April, the EU’s foreign-policy arm drafted a report on disinformation that implicated China. Beijing pressed for the report to be watered down after part was leaked, according to an internal EU communication.
Ensuing outcry over possible EU self-censorship prompted Brussels to stiffen its position. Last month the bloc released a plan to counter disinformation that for the first time explicitly named China, marking a significant shift.
“If we have evidence, we should not shy away from naming and shaming,” said Vera Jourova, vice president of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body.
A spokesperson for China’s mission to the EU said: “China is always opposed to the fabrication and dissemination of disinformation by an individual or organization. China is a victim of disinformation.”
Disputes surrounding the April disinformation report bared Europe’s competing views on China. Some see it as a threat to democracy needing resolute opposition.
“We insist on playing chess with them while they are boxing,” said Jakub Kalensky, who used to work on the EU’s East Stratcom Task Force countering disinformation and is now at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Others favor a less confrontational path emphasizing dialogue and promoting economic benefits. But since the April dispute, even Europeans favoring openness have adopted a harder line.
“China overplayed its hand,” said an EU official. Beijing’s aggressiveness “helped to convince the unconvinced” within the EU, the official said.
While many European officials hope still to walk a line between Washington and Beijing, a growing number warn that China, like Russia before it, is capitalizing on European openness to co-opt decision makers and advance its agenda.
“We should not be helping them to do that,” said Monika Richter, a former analyst at the East Stratcom Task Force who recently quit in a dispute over its handling of China in its disinformation reports. “We are hobbled by excessive focus on giving Russia and China a fair hearing.”