China Poses a Challenge to the Heart of Europe

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Perhaps best known for its chocolate, fries and beer, Belgium is instead gaining a reputation as a center of espionage, with China a key player.

Belgium’s intelligence agency says the country now hosts as many or more spies than during the Cold War. That’s due to its location at the heart of Europe and the fact Brussels is home to the European Union and NATO.

Spying is the extreme end of Chinese interference in areas from academia to politics that’s aided by a relaxed attitude to the risks among Belgium’s establishment. The country’s broken political system — it still has no federal government six months after elections — gives regional politicians control over Chinese investments in areas including technology and logistics.

The Belgian malaise contrasts with the EU’s more assertive attitude. New commission President Ursula von der Leyen has a clear and realistic view of Beijing, according to a senior EU diplomat who sees the tide turning toward a more united European stance on China.

Germany will attempt to foster that unity next year when it hosts the first-ever summit of the EU’s 27 national leaders and President Xi Jinping. For Brussels, 2020 looks like it’s going to be a year of facing up to China’s risks as well as its rewards.

Global Headlines

Thanksgiving surprise | Donald Trump made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan to meet with the country’s president and U.S. soldiers, saying that peace talks with the Taliban have resumed amid a push for a cease-fire with the militant group. Trump confirmed he’d like to cut troop levels to about 8,600 from 12,000 now — but without diminishing operational duties.

Read more about how Trump’s trip was kept a closely guarded secret.

Election peril | U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is leading opinion polls but, as he heads into the final campaign stretch for the Dec. 12 election, he could be facing his biggest danger yet. As Tim Ross reports, Trump’s brief visit to London next week — to mark NATO’s 70th anniversary — has senior Conservatives worried for a whole host of reasons.

Leading Europe | Commission chief von der Leyen wants to prepare the EU’s transition to a low-carbon economy and boost Brussels’ geopolitical influence. But as Nikos Chrysoloras and Jonathan Stearns explain, she faces a fragmented European Parliament, an unforgiving global environment and the perennial challenge of securing approval from the bloc’s governments.

A week after German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party survived a blistering leadership battle, her allied Social Democrats are threatening to blow up the coalition with the election of a new leader.

Allies at odds | President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could hit up the leaders of France, Germany and the U.K. for money next week to keep housing Syrian refugees in Turkey, when he sees them on the sidelines of the NATO meeting. There will be plenty to talk about — Turkey is at odds with its NATO allies over its recent military offensive in northeastern Syria and its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.

Legacy lost | The rioting in Chile has burned President Sebastian Pinera’s political agenda to the ground. Just 18 months after the billionaire leader took office his flagship policies, including pledges to expand the private pension system, cut taxes for the rich and clamp down on crime have been ditched, reversed or revised under pressure from the biggest street protests in decades.

What to Watch

Hong Kong police have lifted their blockade on a local university — after seizing 3,989 petrol bombs and 1,339 explosives — clearing a campus that had been besieged for nearly two weeks. Italian police arrested 19 far-right extremists suspected of trying to form a new Nazi party, confiscating rifles, crossbows, swords and knives, as well as Nazi flags and photos of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Sri Lanka’s new government wants to cancel its predecessor’s $1.1 billion, 99-year lease of a port to a Chinese venture, underscoring the wider controversy dogging Xi’s Belt and Road initiative.

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