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Von der Leyen: ‘We don’t want to cut science ties with China’

Image: European Union

Commission chief underscores importance of defining EU-China relationship, while strengthening EU resilience in key technologies

The president of the European Commission has said that the EU does not want to cut its scientific ties with China, against a backdrop of growing geopolitical tensions.

Speaking at an event in Brussels held by two think tanks on 30 March, Ursula von der Leyen (pictured) described the importance of defining the EU’s future relationship with China, given that “our relations have become more distant and more difficult in the last few years”.

Growing distrust between the US and China has resulted in the US putting up trade barriers and exerting pressure on Europe to do the same.

While saying that the EU needed to adjust its stance on China in light of the country “becoming more repressive at home and more assertive abroad”, von der Leyen also highlighted the importance of continuing to engage with the Asian superpower.

“Our relationship with China is far too important to be put at risk by failing to clearly set the terms of a healthy engagement,” she said at the event held by the Mercator Institute for China Studies and the European Policy Centre.

“The point here is that we do not want to cut economic, societal, political or scientific ties.”

Strengthening EU resilience

But von der Leyen also outlined areas where the EU would look to reduce its reliance on China.

She said China’s “explicit fusion of its military and commercial sectors” poses risks to the EU’s security through dependence on trade and investment, suggesting that China wants to make the rest of the world increasingly dependent on it for emerging technologies such as quantum computing, robotics and artificial intelligence.

In line with this ambition to become more self-reliant, the Commission president said the EU must “look at our own resilience and dependencies” in areas such as health, digital and the clean-tech sector.

“We need to think about this right across our single market to strengthen our resilience on cyber and maritime, space and digital, defence and innovation,” von der Leyen said.

New policy tools

The EU may need to develop “new defensive tools” in some sectors and should “define its future relationship” with China in “sensitive high-tech areas such as microelectronics, quantum computing, robotics, artificial intelligence, biotech” and others, according to von der Leyen.

This extends beyond China, she said, adding that the EU should “look at where there are gaps in our toolbox which allow the leakage of emerging and sensitive technologies through investments in other countries”.

Reacting to the speech, Markus Beyrer, director of the industry association Business Europe, said any new tools that could affect trade or investment flows between the EU and China “need to be carefully assessed and discussed with business”.