Three of the most powerful members of the incoming European Commission have taken a swipe at China during their confirmation hearings, again suggesting Brussels' readiness to take a tough line on Beijing's geopolitical and economic ambitions in the next five years.
Europe-based sources also suggested that Ursula von der Leyen from Germany - the next president of the commission, the European Union's executive branch - would play a more coordinating role on EU-China policies than her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker.
Von der Leyen would be "ready to highlight the differences in equal length with, if not more than, the commonalities shared between the (European Union) and China", an EU source involved in Asian policymaking said.
In real terms, according to multiple sources, Brussels is prepared to build alliances with democratic Asian countries; to speak out more forcefully on China's human rights issues and unfair trade practices; to continue to label China a strategic rival; to encourage more stringent checks on investments from China, especially its state-owned enterprises; and to give Africa and the Balkans a bigger incentive to work with the EU, rather than China.
One of the most forceful rebuttals to China among von der Leyen's cabinet members came from Phil Hogan, the incoming trade commissioner, who testified at the European Parliament's confirmation hearing last week.
The parliament holds hearings and votes on nominated commissioners before they can take office.
"We expect the same from the people we trade with," Hogan, from Ireland, said. "We have been promised a lot by China; it has not been delivered yet."
One of his main duties would be to engage China-friendly EU member states to support a tougher investment screening mechanism that the bloc adopted in April in response to China's aggressive takeovers of strategic industries in Europe.
"Beefing up this particular screening mechanism, I think, is essential if we want to protect our critical technology and critical infrastructure," Hogan said. "We just cannot take the chance on these issues."
He also criticised China's formation of the 17+1 group, comprising 17 countries from Eastern and southeastern Europe, including both EU and non-EU members.
"There are some concerns in some member states, particularly our friends who are in the 17+1," he said. "So we have to walk together to see if we get an EU position on this."
Hogan's testimony was followed by that of Josep Borrell, nominee to be the EU's foreign policy chief.
Delivering a strategic road map for EU's diplomatic future on Monday, the seasoned Spanish politician, 72, said the bloc needed to position itself away from the United States and China.
He endorsed the present commission's position, where Beijing represented "as much a systemic rival as an economic opportunity and partner on global issues".
How far he will go to tackle China, however, is an open question, given his previous remark while serving as Spain's foreign minister that he would be "ready to play a positive role in promoting the better development of Spain-China and EU-China relations".
He also told Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that Spain "does not support unreasonable restrictions on hi-tech enterprises".
Nevertheless, Borrell would now need to stick to von der Leyen's pledge to "define our (the EU's) relations with a more self-assertive China".
The incoming executive vice-president, Margrethe Vestager, who oversees digital and competition policies, was another who on Tuesday outlined a strong position that would have implications for China's investment activities all over Europe.
"When foreigners invest in Europe, we need to make sure they come for the right reasons," she said in her hearing. "If (that is) a state-owned company from abroad, we need to make sure there (is) not foreign state aid."
She highlighted the need for reciprocity on procurement policies - a sticking point for European countries, with Chinese businesses much more able to enter their markets than European businesses who face barriers to operating in China.
Von der Leyen's team is expected to take office on November 1, although the exact date remains uncertain because members of the European Parliament are sceptical about some of her cabinet candidates, all of whom are nominated by the 27 member states rather than by her.
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