The European Union is on the hunt for a new head to lead its evolving China policy as veteran official Gunnar Wiegand retires on Thursday. The bloc's External Action Service (EEAS), serving as its de facto foreign office, has shortlisted three candidates to assume the role of managing director for Asia and the Pacific. The decision comes against the backdrop of a changing landscape in EU-China relations and the need for strategic direction in a complex geopolitical environment.
The candidates in contention for the pivotal position are Paola Pampaloni, Niclas Kvarnström, and Baiba Braže. Pampaloni, a long-time deputy of Wiegand at the EEAS, is considered a popular choice for continuity due to her familiarity with Asia policy and her involvement in promoting a more assertive EU approach towards China. She has been instrumental in advocating for a robust EU stance in response to China's growing assertiveness under President Xi Jinping.
Niclas Kvarnström, head of the Asia and the Pacific department at Sweden's foreign affairs ministry, is another contender. Kvarnström, with a strong background in diplomacy and extensive experience in Asia, played a key role during Sweden's presidency of the European Union. Sweden's emphasis on the Indo-Pacific during its presidency marked a strategic shift that resonated with other European nations concerned about China's expansionist tendencies in the region.
Baiba Braže, a Latvian diplomat with a distinguished career, completes the list of candidates. While her experience lies outside the Asia policy arena, Braže's background as a seasoned diplomat and her insights into autocratic regimes from her time in Soviet-era Latvia may prove advantageous in shaping the EU's evolving stance on China.
The upcoming appointment comes at a crucial juncture for EU-China relations. Wiegand, who has been synonymous with the evolving EU-China policy, is retiring after a period of significant policy development. Under his leadership, the EU adopted a nuanced three-pronged approach towards China in 2019, recognizing China as a partner, competitor, and systemic rival simultaneously. This approach highlighted the EU's evolving stance toward China and its intention to balance cooperation with vigilance.
The chosen candidate will inherit the challenge of steering the EU's stance amid escalating tensions and shifting dynamics. The departure of key figures such as Wiegand poses a risk of institutional memory loss, potentially impacting the continuity and coherence of the EU's evolving China strategy. The EU's "de-risking" policy, aimed at reducing economic exposure to China and recalibrating trade relations, is facing resistance from some member states. The challenge lies in building consensus and fostering unity among the 27 member states on this critical policy issue.
As the EU navigates the intricate landscape of EU-China relations, the new Asia chief will need to strike a delicate balance between assertiveness and engagement. The EU's position will influence its trade, security, and diplomatic priorities, making the appointment a significant milestone in the bloc's foreign policy agenda. With geopolitical tensions on the rise and China's global influence growing, the EU's evolving China policy remains a focal point of international attention, underscoring the importance of effective leadership in the role.
By fLEXI tEAM