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Speech by Ulf Kristersson

Speech by Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson at the European Council on Foreign Relations


Stockholm, June 8, 2023

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Thank you Carl! 

And Carl - thanks a lot for your trip last weekend to Ankara. Thanks for undertaking important missions for your country again and again. I do appreciate it. 

And believe me – it’s an honour for me to join you today. I’ve followed your work closely for quite a few years. Impressive. And again – welcome to Stockholm. 

Let me start today – and end today – with China: 

The challenges we face now might be the greatest of modern times. I realise it is easy to overstate the importance of the dynamics that you experience yourself – and perhaps that’s how it is for every generation. But without agreeing on the reasons why, these really ARE “changes not seen in a hundred years,” as Xi Jinping recently said as he concluded his trip to Moscow.

China has obviously changed enormously since the late 70s, in almost every respect. Millions and millions have been brought out of poverty. The scientific and technological successes are self-evident. Chinese companies conquer the world. And the West has finally understood that this part of the world deserves our curiosity and attention. That’s good.

But the West and other free market democracies did not realise the consequences of facing the world’s first economically successful authoritarian non-democracy of modern times. For too long, we thought that being democratic was the only path to material success. We were wrong. Now China is increasingly repressive at home and assertive abroad. 

The soft power of the free world back in the 1990s was unchallenged. Today, the need for the world’s democracies to deliver – to be competitive and stay attractive – will be vital for our role in future geopolitics.

Today, I’d like to speak about foreign policy steps we are taking in Sweden, formulating policies in our coming role as Allies. But also about what we’re doing, in our EU Presidency, to help Europe stay united and competitive – and in an even closer transatlantic partnership.

This has proved to be crucial in regard to the free world’s support to Ukraine. But it’s equally true regarding our and Europe’s relations with China. Transatlantic unity is key and a fundamental value in itself. I’m not against strategy, nor am I against autonomy. But I do believe that over the last year, the US has proved its deep commitment to the European continent. We should match this commitment with an engagement in, for example, the Indo-Pacific.

Today, the defining focus for my government, since taking office eight months ago, has been to display our support to Ukrainian friends in need. We decided to get rid of an almost bizarre legacy of not being able to support a country with military equipment, when they need weapons the most. Instead we have gathered an almost unanimous parliament to back eleven military support packages, so far.

  • Infantry fighting vehicles,
  • tanks,
  • advanced air defence systems,
  • training,

And at the request of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, their pilots are about to conduct evaluation flights on our Gripen fighters.

The Russian full-scale aggression led Sweden to a ground-breaking shift in our own security policy doctrine. As we hope to soon complete our NATO accession, we will pass a milestone in our 200 years long journey from neutrality to solidarity. It is indeed a question of pragmatic realism, and I truly respect those who could change their mind when it was simply necessary. But it is also a question of values. So I also honour the brave Swedes who promoted NATO membership at a time when they got nothing but mockery in response.

As a NATO ally, Sweden will not only seek common protection, but also be a security provider with a 360-degree approach. We have a few assets I’m not too shy to emphasise: our geography, on land and in the archipelago. We will be the missing link connecting Allies in the east with the Atlantic. We are strong in the air and under the surface of the Baltic Sea, and we know – not least through exceptional radar capacity – an awful lot about Russia. Our capabilities will make the Alliance stronger.

We meet here today during the final weeks of the Swedish EU Presidency. And allow me to say what you perhaps could guess: it’s been extremely time consuming. And very meaningful and great fun. We’ve summarised our efforts in three key words: greener, safer, and freer.

The number one priority is of course broad support to Ukraine. Militarily, but also politically. I stick to the important wording “merit-based” – but we do believe Ukraine’s future is in the EU.

Another important ambition has been to address Europe’s long-term challenges in terms of competitiveness and economic growth. Because the EU clearly lags behind and the US West Coast and the Chinese East Coast have become the world’s two innovation and technology hotbeds. Good for them, not necessarily good for us.

So with our Presidency, we’ve successfully put European growth and competitiveness back on the agenda. The EU has proved its abilities in crisis management over the years. That’s necessary but not sufficient. Let’s also bring on the long term.

And – we’ve had the big responsibility of leading the final negotiations on the climate package Fit for 55. I do hope to be able to close it in a week or so.

In all these aspects of cooperation, from defence to trade to climate – transatlantic cooperation is – and should be – a cornerstone for the EU.

And we really did underline that this last week, when we hosted the EU-US Trade and Technology Council in Luleå in northern Sweden. Finding common standards and solutions – on AI, 6G and clean-tech – will benefit both sides of the Atlantic.

Finally – the second round of discussions on China at the European Council at the end of June will be important. And I think there is a momentum – and perhaps a beginning convergence.

Let me say just a few words about my personal relationship with China. I myself lived with my family in Beijing in 2008–2009. Since I’m a typical Swede, my own task was mainly to take care of our three kids while my wife worked with major Swedish industry. 

Hence I’ve engaged with the extremely rich and dynamic Chinese culture. I’ve had food from all over China. Travelled across China. I’ve met wonderful and energetic people, been in the impressive skyscrapers of Shanghai – the poor countryside on my way to Tibet and met with the tech start-ups of Hong Kong. 

A few years ago I also tried to prove my very limited but still existing knowledge in Chinese. But my kids were not impressed: “come on Daddy, what lousy pronunciation…”.

Before and after living there I visited China many times from 1997, over the millennium until 2010. 

At that time, many of us thought that economic integration and new technologies would put China on a path to more freedom. Instead, technology has cemented China’s governance model. The internet was powerful, but so was the Great Fire Wall. AI will be powerful, but so will the Chinese control. 

I was obviously not the only person being pretty enthusiastic in the early 2000s. I remember reading the fascinating book What does China think in 2008, written by someone named Mark Leonard… whom I had not at the time yet met. Being in Beijing at the time, I saw on a daily basis exactly what Mark described in the book. That hope was alive for a while, and even in early 2013, quite a few expected liberalisation to continue. They – and we – were wrong.

How China chooses to face its economic, geopolitical and demographic challenges in the coming years will of course shape China’s future. But the consequences of China’s development will also have a defining importance for other parts of the world.

China has since 2001 been an integrated part of the global economy and even more an indispensable part of the solution in fields like fighting climate change, improving biodiversity and global health, dealing with disarmament and conflict resolution – and many other issues of mutual concern.

But our relationship with China needs to be a two-way street. We expect China to engage on substance and deliver on its commitments.

The idea of de-coupling would simply not be in our interest. But as Ursula von der Leyen has rightly stated: de-risking is not de-coupling, nor does it mean disengagement.

However, de-risking does mean ensuring that our exchanges with China are consistent with our interests, values and security concerns. We will continue to address human rights violations, including in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. The same goes for the consular case of Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, which remains a priority for the new Government and the entire EU. We call for his immediate release.

In terms of trade, Sweden – exactly as we argue within Europe – welcomes competition and we are believers in EU competitiveness. But we also demand level playing fields vis-à-vis all markets. And we do need necessary tools to address unfair competition.

In practice, de-risking means being aware of vulnerabilities and reducing excessive dependencies that may have implications for our economies and for security. The Chinese intelligence law from 2017 should be taken at face value.

Security in the Indo-Pacific and the transatlantic area is increasingly interconnected. We would welcome China playing a part in a solution to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity and ending Russia’s illegal aggression. But we are not naïve about the long-term partnership between China and Russia. Sometimes countries have to choose, and China should not support Russia’s war.

As for Taiwan, let me underline our concern regarding the escalation of tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Any crisis as a result of an attempt to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait using force would have very far-reaching consequences.

The EU’s One China Policy remains unchanged. But we continue to be impressed by the democratic as well as economic development of Taiwan, and we remain keen to further develop our relations.

This brings me to a conclusion regarding the EU’s credibility as a global actor.

Our relations with and exposure to China is a matter where the EU 27 should unite. The EU’s credibility and effectiveness rests on our ability to stand up for the agreed policy and live up to our interests and values. That’s very obvious for all countries, but increasingly so also for bigger ones. Those now saying “why should we have to choose sides between China and the US?” are simply asking themselves the wrong question.

As Europeans, we should formulate our own open but firm approach, but also rely on long and strong partnerships with the US and other democracies. Obviously, that also requires our own societies to remain successful, attractive, democratic role models for the rest of the world. Nothing can compare with that.

Thank you!