China and EU push for global free trade
By Eszter Zalan
Top diplomats from the EU and China have pledged closer cooperation on trade and geopolitical issues amid concerns about US protectionism under president Donald Trump.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini co-chaired the seventh EU-China Strategic Dialogue with state councilor Yang Jiechi, China's highest-ranking diplomat, in Beijing on Wednesday (19 April) in their first high-level meeting since Trump took office in January.
"We are living times of growing tensions and geopolitical unpredictability, so our cooperation has never been so important," Mogherini said after the meeting.
"China and EU are global powers, we have a joint responsibility to work together towards a more cooperative, rule-based global order," she told reporters.
Mogherini said the EU-China strategic partnership had reached an "unprecedented level of maturity".
China was keen to cast itself as a protector of free trade and globalisation and a force for stability, just as the US is being seen as increasingly inward looking and unpredictable under president Trump.
China's president Xi Jinping also advocated globalisation and rejected protectionism in a speech in Davos last January, and has tried to align China closer to the EU.
Mogherini said that such speeches by Xi "have raised high expectations that China and the European Union can work together on multilateralism, on rules-based global order".
"We can meet together these expectations of a joint EU-China role for improving the conditions of our world and our citizens," she said.
However, the EU was cautious about Xi's attempt to portray China as the champion of free trade.
China's massive steel exports have caused job losses and shut down businesses in Europe, while European businesses have complained about the lack of access to China's market and about Chinese discrimination.
On the other side, China has wanted the EU to grant it market economy status, which would make it harder for the bloc to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese goods.
Beijing has also been irritated by the number of anti-dumping investigations by Brussels.
Its complaints come as the EU looks to clinch a bilateral investment treaty with China to make it easier for European companies to do business there, and amid internal EU talks on stricter trade defence tools that could lead to higher duties to deter dumping.
Concerns are also on the rise over China's build-up of military forces on islands in the South China Sea.
The world is watching
Mogherini's visit to Beijing comes ahead of an EU-China summit due in Brussels in June.
She also met with Chinese premier Li Keqiang on Tuesday, who said that, against the backdrop of uncertainty, deeper cooperation between China and the EU did "not only concern the common interests of the two sides, but is also of great significance for the development of international political and economic relations."
He said that the world was looking at how the two major powers tackled those challenges together.
One of those issues was Syria.
Mogherini said the EU's priority was to bring an end to the war there.
She said after the meeting with Yang that they had discussed how to support the UN-led peace process and to improve humanitarian access.
The two diplomats also discussed rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, as North Korea moves to accelerate its nuclear weapons promgram.