As part of Wiegand’s team since 2017, the Italian Pampaloni has helped promote a more muscular EU approach to an increasingly assertive China under President Xi Jinping.

Kvarnström, the head of the Asia and the Pacific department at the Swedish ministry of foreign affairs, is another familiar face in the policy arena. Previously the Swedish ambassador to Singapore, he also worked as a diplomat in Beijing and New York and studied Chinese at Oxford University in the 1990s.

Advertisement

When Sweden held the EU’s rotating presidency this year, the government made the Indo-Pacific a priority foreign policy focus. Kvarnström was heavily involved in organising an Indo-Pacific forum in Stockholm attended by foreign ministers from India, Japan, South Korea and others.
Niclas Kvarnström has been suggested as a possible replacement for Wiegand. Photo: Niclas Kvarnström

Braže, the third candidate, is a seasoned Latvian diplomat who recently completed a three-year stint as deputy secretary general for public policy at Nato at a time when the defence alliance pivoted for the first time towards China. Braže has no direct experience working on Asia however, and could be viewed as a wild card in that respect.

People who have worked with her described her as a steady pair of hands who came of age in Soviet-era Latvia. “She knows well how autocratic regimes operate, this could come in useful,” said one former colleague.

The odd couple: German far right shows unlikely affinity for Communist China

Whoever takes the role will have big shoes to fill. Wiegand has become synonymous with a fast evolving EU-China policy. As the EEAS’ top Asia official, he has pushed for a more realistic approach to China and is a proponent of de-risking ties with the world’s second largest economy, but maintains that engagement is crucial. Through a series of internal papers, the EEAS has urged member states to be less naive on China and to reduce their economic exposure in key areas.

Advertisement

One official who worked closely with him over the years described him as the “high priest” of EU-China policy. A senior diplomat worried that his departure at the second time of asking – he was persuaded to stay an extra year when he reached retirement age last summer – would leave a huge void at a time when leadership on the evolving China strategy was crucial.

There was a danger initiatives such as the economic security strategy – better known as “de-risking” – would become “rudderless”, said the senior diplomat, pointing to a series of high-profile exits and the looming European elections next year.

Advertisement

A year out from elections, the departure lounge is already filling up.

02:36

French and EU leaders urge China to ‘bring Russia to its senses’ and stop invasion of Ukraine

French and EU leaders urge China to ‘bring Russia to its senses’ and stop invasion of Ukraine

The diplomat pointed to the exits of the EU’s competition chief Margrethe Vestager – a key player in the de-risking strategy – who is seeking the top job at the European Investment Bank, Abigaël Vasselier, who left as deputy head of the EEAS’ China desk to join the Mercator Institute of China Studies, a German think tank, and influential lawmaker Reinhard Buetikofer – often a thorn in the side of EU bureaucracy but a well-respected voice on China policy – who will retire before next year’s elections.

Advertisement

All the while, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen must get the bloc’s 27 member states on board with her de-risking policy that would see more export controls applied to China, along with restrictions on which sectors of the Chinese economy European companies can invest their capital.

“That’s a lot of institutional knowledge [to be lost], who is going to steer the strategy? You can’t do it without a strong EEAS,” the diplomat said.

Member states have so far given the policy proposal a lukewarm response. Some would prefer to avoid even discussing it and at major EU meetings it has been among the first things sacrificed from the agenda when time is in short supply. In ambassadors’ meetings in Brussels through the summer, China was discussed only once: in relation to the Brics summit in South Africa last week.

China’s ‘crisis of confidence’ curable, EU business head says in call to action

Before the break, German diplomats said their foreign minister was excited to present the new China strategy to counterparts, but as Ukraine talks rumbled on, Beijing got bumped off the agenda yet again.

Advertisement

In private meetings, major powers such as Germany and Italy have pushed back against the idea of EU screening investments into China, despite agreeing to do so at a G7 level, where they are both members, officials said.

France is on board with the concept of economic security. Privately, its diplomats say it is about time Brussels caught up with the French’s long-held love of industrial policy. But Paris is reluctant to give the European Commission more power when it comes to issues such as export controls and national security.

Advertisement