4th Mar 2024


Tense EU-China summit showdown unlikely to bear fruit

  • EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Beijing, April 2023 (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)
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On Thursday and Friday (7-8 December), European leaders will be in Beijing for the first face-to-face EU-China summit since 2019 — but from which Brussels does not expect any major deliverables.

During the two-day meeting, the presidents of the EU Commission and Council, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, together with EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, will meet Chinese president Xi Jinping and his premier Li Qiang.

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  • 'We have tools to protect our market, but we prefer to have negotiated solutions' von der Leyen told AFP ahead of the 48-hours summit (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)

While the agenda contains no surprises, that does not make it any easier for both sides to find some kind of consensus. European and Chinese leaders will discuss the war in Ukraine, the situation in the Middle East, trade imbalances,economic security, Taiwan, human rights and global challenges such as climate change.

However, despite this being the first in-person summit in four years, since before Covid, no joint statement reflecting areas of common understanding will be issued at the end of the talks — as was the case at the two previous summits.

Not having a joint statement was already anticipated by the EU, as relations with China are nowadays more complex than they used to be. And although there will not be any 'deliverable' in such a format, there are issues where both sides can go further, an EU spokesperson told EUobserver.

Meanwhile, China and the EU do not share the same views on international and regional issues, foreign minister Wang Yi said at a meeting with EU diplomatic envoys in Beijing on Monday, according to the Chinese news agency Xinhua.

"Only by adhering to communication and coordination can we play a constructive role in maintaining world peace and stability and addressing global challenges," Wang said.

The EU is maintaining its approach of recent years towards China, which is simultaneously labelled by Brussels as "a partner for cooperation and negotiation, an economic competitor and a systemic rival".

Member states have imbalances in energy, chemicals, machinery and vehicles, among others, and the EU's total trade deficit rose to almost €400bn in 2022. That year, all EU countries except Ireland had a trade deficit with China, which is the EU's largest partner for imports of goods.

"European leaders will not tolerate over time an imbalance in the trade relationship," von der Leyen told AFP in an interview ahead of the summit in Beijing.

"We have tools to protect our market, but we prefer to have negotiated solutions," she added.

And at this high-level dialogue, European leaders will reiterate to their Chinese counterparts that the EU does not intend to cut its economic ties with China, but to diversify its suppliers and reduce its critical dependencies (the so-called 'de-risking, not decoupling' strategy).

"In Chinese eyes, we are closer to each other, but maybe not to the case for the Europeans, because you see us as systemic rivals all of a sudden," Chinese diplomat Ma Keqing said, during a recent Friends of Europe forum.

China's mistrust stems in part from EU moves such as Brussels' investigation into Beijing's state subsidies for its electric vehicle (EV) market, or from Dutch export-controls on products such as semiconductors.

But it's also due to the list of critical technologies that Brussels presented in October, to protect itself from foreign powers — although the commission did not explicitly name China.

'Doesn't make sense'

"If the EU imposes severe restrictions on the export of high-tech products to China on the one hand, and hopes to significantly increase exports to China on the other, I'm afraid it doesn't make sense," foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

For the EU-27, the rationale is to ensure a level playing field, and their officials make it clear that the investigation into Chinese EVs is only targeting state subsidies that are seen as giving an unfair advantage to Chinese industry.

Beijing's underlying concern is that the European bloc will align itself with the more protectionist US, with which it is challenging for the position of the world's largest economic power.

This is particularly the case as the Asian giant is experiencing an economic slowdown, which means that its consumers have less money to spend at home and therefore the country needs to export more abroad.

From the EU's perspective, the summit reads more like a continuation of dialogue and the stabilisation of relations between the two blocs amid growing geopolitical and economic-trade tensions, rather than a moment for stand-out results or breakthroughs.

Indeed, EU officials cited the list of different talks with China on the economy, climate change and human rights as part of the concrete results achieved in recent months.

During the two-day meeting, the EU will also continue to push for China to become more engaged in Ukraine and use its influence to get Russia to stop the war, an EU official told reporters ahead of the summit.

The EU is well aware that China is not comfortable with this war, but will keep sending the same message to Chinese companies regarding circumventing sanctions.

As Xi has a 'no limits' partnership with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the war in Ukraine will be a priority for European leaders, with the aim of ensuring that China does not help Russia further, EU officials said.

The summit comes in a year full of visits to Xi's country by senior EU officials, including von der Leyen herself in April, commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis in September and Borrell in October.

2023 has also been filled with various high-level dialogues between China and the EU, including the resumption of the (low-level) human rights dialogue — described as 'meaningless' by advocates such as Human Rights Watch (HRW).

In June, EU leaders shared their concerns about human rights in China, but failed to detail a strategy to address Beijing's alarming rights record, HRW said in a December 4 letter to von der Leyen and Michel.

"The EU shouldn't treat human rights as a tick-the-box exercise, but be prepared to take actions that match the urgency and magnitude of Beijing's severe repression across the country," EU director at HRW Philippe Dam said.

"A Chinese government that crushes its peoples basic rights will not be a reliable and accountable partner," Dam added.

Moreover, member states are currently deciding their position on an EU regulation that would ban products made with forced labour from the EU single market.

But when it comes to state-imposed forced labour, which affects an estimated 3.9 million people worldwide (including Uyghurs in China's Xianjiang region), neither the commission nor member states appear to be proposing "an adequate investigation or enforcement mechanism" to uncover such cases, trade unions and civil society organisations pointed out last week.

"It's vital that the EU adopts robust prohibition of imports and exports that are linked to forced labour", Tirana Hassan, executive director at HRW, told reporters on Monday.

"And we need to be thinking about stated imposed forced labour because this will actually help us address the Chinese government's use of Uyghur forced labour inside and outside Xinjiang," she added.

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