BRUSSELS (AFP) - The EU's diplomatic chief has urged the bloc to maintain "collective discipline" in the face of Chinese efforts to play on differences, in an attack on "systemic rival" Beijing.
Mr Josep Borrell, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, said China did not share Europe's respect for human rights, cyber security or the law of the sea.
The criticism in an opinion article published in several European newspapers comes after a difficult few weeks in EU-China ties, in which Brussels has twice been accused of bowing to pressure from Beijing.
"Developing a joint EU approach to superpowers is never easy," former Spanish foreign minister Borrell wrote.
"And the China case is no exception. What's more, China is not shy about sometimes playing on these differences. But surely it is up to us Europeans to maintain the necessary collective discipline."
The EU has struggled to adapt to China's newly assertive stance on the international stage under President Xi Jinping.
While some EU countries have argued for a tough line, others have urged caution, and Beijing has used investment from its huge Belt and Road infrastructure project to curry favour, particularly in eastern Europe.
Mr Borrell recalled an EU strategy paper published last year that defined China as "a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance" and economic competitor as well as a "partner with whom the EU has closely aligned objectives".
But when the focus of the crisis shifted to Europe, the EU was surprised by China making a great public show of sending masks and other protective equipment, and Brussels was accused of doing too little to help Europeans.
In a veiled barb at Beijing, Mr Borrell said it was crucial in a crisis to avoid "politicisation of emergency medical assistance" and urged EU states not to be naive.
"We should move forward together, based on a realistic assessment of China's strategic intent and the EU's common interests," Mr Borrell wrote.
The tough-talking op-ed comes after the EU's ambassador in Beijing caved to pressure from Beijing to censor another opinion piece published in Chinese media.
The article published in the China Daily omitted a reference to the coronavirus originating in the city of Wuhan.
Less than a month before that, the EU was accused of watering down a report on coronavirus disinformation to make it less critical of Beijing - though Brussels officials strenuously denied the claim.