BRUSSELS – The European Union criticized China on Friday for asserting more control over Hong Kong and suggested the move would have an impact on China-EU relations, but the 27-nation bloc ruled out taking any action against its major trading partner.
The criticism came after EU foreign ministers weighed the need for a tougher policy on China, which has been accused of trying to influence European officials, against the potential damage to business ties between the Asian economic giant and the world’s biggest trading bloc.
EU member nations are often divided in their approach to China, but Beijing’s imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong — a Chinese territory that is supposed to have a high degree of autonomy under a “one-country, two systems” framework — seems to have galvanized them.
“We express our grave concern at the steps taken by China," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after chairing a video meeting of the foreign ministers. “This risks to seriously undermine the ‘one country, two systems’ principle and the high degree of autonomy of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong."
Borrell told reporters, “Our relations with China are based on mutual respect and trust. I want to underline this - respect and trust - but this decision calls this into question."
The national security law approved in Beijing could severely restrict opposition political activity and civil society in Hong Kong, where the pro-democracy opposition sees the move as an assault on the territory’s autonomy.
The United States has called on China to back off on the security law. The U.K. government warned that it would extend the visas and possibly provide a path to citizenship for some British passport holders from Hong Kong.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that “Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy cannot be undermined. We expect that the freedoms and rights for the citizens to be protected through their basic law and the ‘one country, two systems’ principle.”
Asked what action the EU might be prepared to take and whether sanctions were discussed, Borrell said “there was only one country that made a reference to the issue of sanctions. I don’t think that sanctions are the way to resolve our problems with China.”
He said the bloc “will continue trying to put pressure on the Chinese authorities” to make them aware that the clampdown on Hong Kong "will affect the way we deal with some of the issues of mutual interest, but there is nothing more on the agenda.”
Borrell described Friday's meeting as “a brainstorming” on China policy and partly a preparation for an EU-China summit scheduled to take place in the German city of Leipzig in September, if the status of the coronavirus pandemic allows.
He described the country as "a competitor, a partner, an ally, a rival, everything at the same time, so it’s a complex relationship that cannot be reduced to a single dimension.”
In recent weeks, Borrell has been forced twice to deny that the External Action Service — the EU’s equivalent of a foreign office —has bowed to Chinese pressure to water down a report on fake news linked to the coronavirus and a newspaper op-ed referencing the disease’s origins in Wuhan.
David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.