But the two senior envoys present said there was no direct response from the ministers gathered in Brussels when Blinken said: “We must go back to China and show strength in unity.”
Their absurdity is partly due to Washington not committing to anything until President Joe Biden spells out its China policy more fully.
But ministers were also cautious as the EU seeks a strategic balance in its relations with Beijing and Washington that would ensure that the bloc is not so closely allied with one of the world’s two major powers that it separates the other.
The EU hopes that it will have enough independence from Washington and Beijing to deepen ties with Indo-Pacific countries, such as India, Japan and Australia, EU officials said.
In a new departure for the European Union, they said, the bloc hopes to agree on a plan next month to include a larger and stronger security presence in the Indo-Pacific region and more development assistance, trade and diplomacy.
“We are planning a third route between Washington and Beijing,” said the EU ambassador to Asia.
Another EU official in Asia has expressed concern that the United States has “a trivial agenda against China, which is not our agenda.”
Last month’s video conference was part of an effort to rebuild a coalition neglected by former US President Donald Trump under Biden, who has had hostile relations with both the EU and China.
The White House has launched a “Europe Roadshow,” a senior U.S. official said, and is communicating daily with European governments about China’s growing power, “for a sustainable endeavor … a high level of coordination and cooperation.”
In a sign that US pressure is having an effect on China, Germany plans to send a frigate across Asia and the South China Sea in August, with a military outpost on an artificial island in Beijing, senior government officials told Reuters.
The EU will approve four Chinese officials and an entity on March 22 for violating the human rights of China’s Uighur Muslim minority, including travel bans and confiscation of assets, diplomats said.
In another sign, when Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over a video summit with Central and Eastern European countries last month, six EU member states – Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia – sent ministers instead of heads of state.
But Washington’s attitude toward China is still distrustful in Brussels, even as Europe’s stance on China stems from the crackdown on Beijing in Hong Kong, treatment of Uighur Muslims and the first known COVID-19 epidemic in China.
The United States has said China is an authoritarian state that has begun a military modernization that threatens the West and seeks to weaken telecommunications equipment maker Huawei, which it sees as a national security threat.
The US-led NATO military alliance has also begun to focus on China, but the Biden administration is still reviewing policy.
“We ask what their strategy is in China and they say they don’t have one yet,” said an EU official in Asia.
French President Emmanuel Macron last month raised concerns in some EU states that uniting against China would create a “maximum probability” of a conflict.
But the EU is hungry for new trade and sees the Indo-Pacific as a huge potential offer.
The European Union has a trade agreement with Japan and is in talks with Australia. Diplomats say Indo-Pacific countries want the EU to be more proactive in keeping trade free and open in the region and to ensure that they do not face direct confrontation between Beijing and Washington.
France is committed to closer ties with allies such as Australia and India, including an Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018, followed by the Netherlands, which has its own strategy and a relaxed set of German “guidelines”.
The EU strategy, if agreed upon, could involve the deployment of more EU military experts to EU diplomatic missions in Asia, training of coastguards and sending more EU military personnel to serve on Australian ships patrolling the Indian Ocean, diplomats said.
It is unknown at this time what he will do after leaving the post. German government officials say the EU cannot afford to isolate Beijing despite identifying China as a “systematic rival” in 2019.
But French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will travel to India in April to develop the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy, and the EU aims to hold a summit with India this year.
France, with a population of 1.8 million overseas in the Pacific Ocean, has about 4,000 troops, as well as naval ships and patrol boats.
“The cornerstone of Indo-Pacific Europe’s geopolitical path,” said a French diplomat. “There is no alternative.”