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BRUSSELS — Beijing is facing calls from the European Union’s most senior Asia policy official to explain the sudden disappearance of China’s former foreign minister.
In a wide-ranging interview with POLITICO, the EU’s outgoing Asia chief Gunnar Wiegand said Beijing should set out the reasons why Qin Gang — who has not been seen in public for two months — was relieved of his duties in July, after only seven months in the job.
“I do not wish to comment on the sudden disappearance of the former minister Mr. Qin Gang, whom I happen to know from the time when he was vice-minister,” Wiegand said in the interview earlier this month.
“I do hope that, indeed, the Chinese leadership will give more information about what has happened,” he added. “Was it a health issue? Or was it another reason which has brought about this sudden disappearance from the public scene and from the international projection of China?”
The intervention from the senior figure in the EU’s diplomatic machine — who rarely gives media interviews — adds to a long line of the bloc’s growing frustrations with China, with the war of words already ranging from trade imbalances to military expansionism around Taiwan as well as Beijing’s cozy ties with Moscow.
China has not explained why Qin was removed as foreign minister last month, with government spokespeople refusing to repeat their earlier assertion that he had “health issues.” Most Western governments have so far referred to the incident as an internal affair for China. Qin, for now, still retains the title of State Councilor, though he has not been seen in public in this role.
Qin’s absence led to the delay of a planned visit to China by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who’s now tentatively expected to meet this fall with Wang Yi, the country’s top diplomat.
“It is important that we are not just doing dialogue for the sake of dialogue; it is important that we do dialogue for the sake of concrete results,” Wiegand said.
The China expert is due to retire on August 31 as the Asia-Pacific managing director of the European External Action Service, the EU’s foreign policy arm. The EEAS is currently in the final phase of identifying Wiegand’s successor, looking at candidates from both the institution and EU capitals, diplomats have told POLITICO.
In the interview, Wiegand also criticized many of Beijing’s international initiatives, such as the Belt and Road or Global Development initiatives, warning they have created a “significant deviation” from the United Nations-led system that Europe champions.
“China often says something doesn’t work, and should work better according to Chinese interpretations. At the same time, China says it wants to make a contribution to world governance,” he said. “It will have to take a decision whether it wants to push forward its own China-focused, so-called ‘Global Initiatives,’ or whether it wants to make the U.N. and its special organizations a more performing universal framework.”
Wiegand’s tenure coincided with European capitals sharply hardening their stance toward Beijing. Germany, the EU’s top trading partner with China, supports the approach of “de-risking” supply chains to avoid overdependencies on China, while all Baltic members of the EU have quit Beijing’s former “17+1” format, a group once designed for fostering closer relations with European countries from the ex-Soviet sphere. Europe is also worried about China’s role as Russia’s most important lifeline following the West’s sanctions against the Kremlin due to its aggression against Ukraine.
“The realization about the critical dependencies, the vulnerabilities, the de-risking necessity … may be answered differently in different [EU] nations,” Wiegand said. “But I want to say that we [EU members] still have a much higher commonality of analysis, and that we have a much greater unity of purpose.”
He had a message for Washington in case the Europe-friendly Biden administration doesn’t get re-elected next year.
“Perhaps [Donald] Trump, or a new Republican administration, may also take this into account — that Europe plays a different role, it has a proactive agenda with many partners in the whole Indo-Pacific region, and that our partners want an active Europe and want not just to be a function of U.S.-Chinese geopolitical rivalry,” he said.
Wiegand will take on a teaching position at the College of Europe later this year.
A full version of the interview will be available in the China Watcher newsletter next week.