EU plans new rulebook for handling sensitive science links with China

18 Apr 2023 | News

It’s not in Europe’s interest to decouple from China and given this, the emphasis now is on de-risking, Commission president Ursula von der Leyen tells MEPs.  The Commission will set out guidelines to help EU companies maintain ties - while protecting their technologies 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in China earlier this month. Photo:  Dati Bendo / European Union

The EU should not cut scientific ties with China, but it needs to ensure sensitive technologies are not being leaked to the Chinese military, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told MEPs today.

In her first opportunity to discuss the issue since her visit to China with French president Emanuel Macron earlier this month, von der Leyen told a plenary session of the European Parliament that the EU does not want “cut economic, societal, political and scientific ties” with China but needs to figure out urgently how to rebalance its relationship with the communist regime. “There is clearly a need for Europe to work on de-risking some important and sensitive parts of our relationship,” she said.

EU companies need new tools to protect themselves against Chinese attempts to scoop up technologies that have civilian and military use. “We have to look at where there are gaps in our toolbox, which allow the leakage of emerging and sensitive technologies through investments in other countries,” von der Leyen said.

In support of this, the Commission will publish guidelines and measures aiming to help EU companies protect their technologies and ensure EU capital and knowledge is not being used for the benefit of China’s military. 

These will be part of a new economic security strategy the Commission is planning to launch in the coming months. “We need to ensure that our companies’ capital, their expertise, their knowledge, are not used to enhance the military and intelligence capabilities of those who also are our systemic rival,” von der Leyen said.

She also acknowledged Europe is already becoming more dependent on China when it comes to emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computing and biotechnology. “What we want is China to respect the level playing field when it comes to access for our companies to the Chinese market, to respect transparency about subsidies, to respect the intellectual property,” von der Leyen said.

Over the past decades, China has made huge progress after opening up its economy to the world, thanks to a deliberate plan to move away from the classic economic model of communism: of central planning. By giving companies more leeway, China has become economic powerhouse and a leader in many cutting-edge technology sectors.

However, that era is at an end and China is entering a new era of security and control, with president Xi Jinping restyling the communist regime to challenge the technological and military dominance of the US on the world stage.  Von der Leyen said many EU companies doing business in China are already witnessing this shift “towards security and away from the logic of open markets and free trade.”

New playing field for research cooperation

In 2021, the Commission proposed a new global approach to international cooperation in research and innovation in response to shifting geopolitics. It also published guidelines on foreign interference in EU research, encouraging institutions to use this checklist when deciding whether they engage with Chinese partners or not.

For the Commission, the communist regime is occasionally a good partner, but also a systemic rival. The EU still welcomes students from China and funds joint research projects, but there are mounting concerns that the communist party is using its science diaspora to spy on sensitive technologies.

However, the guiding documents put forward by the Commission do not help fully map the increasingly muddied waters of science and technology relations with China.

In the US, the National Science Foundation has confirmed plans to set up special funding for studying the scale and scope of lab leaks from its scientific institutions to China, after former president Donald Trump unsuccessfully carried out espionage investigations against Chinese-American scientists.

Before leaving his post last year, the Commission’s former director general for research and innovation, Jean-Eric Paquet  said the EU should be more forceful in demanding respect for values, reciprocity and intellectual property, but China is not giving any positive signals that it is willing to accept the new rules.

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