Caught between US and Beijing, EU approaches challenging China summit talks

An EU-China e-summit is set to take place on 22 June. [Shutterstock]

While the EU is still struggling to find a common position on China, Beijing hopes to boost ‘strategic trust’ when its leaders hold a video summit with European Council President Charles Michel and Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen next Monday (22 June).

“We expect the summit to give a further boost to our strategic trust and mutually beneficial cooperation on the basis of mutual respect,” Chinese Ambassador to the EU, Zhang Ming, said ahead of the video-summit.

An EU-China summit planned for September in Leipzig, Germany, has been postponed, officially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with no new date provided.

Monday’s talks come as EU member states are struggling to find a unified response to China’s increasing readiness to use its geopolitical clout in Europe, with 27 countries’ competing national interests coming to the fore.

“There have been some noises about ‘the battle of narratives’, yet the nature of China-EU relations, namely mutual benefit, remains unchanged,” the Chinese ambassador added, in a reference to EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell’s earlier words urging EU countries to stand ready for a “struggle for influence” in a “global battle of narratives”.

“We are of the view that there is no fundamental conflict of interests between China and the EU,” Zhang Ming added. “We should not see the other as a systemic rival”.

Although since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there have been accusations of China covering up the disease, spreading misinformation and launching its controversial “masked diplomacy”, those events have not led to the conclusion in Brussels for Europe to cool  its relations with Beijing.

In May, EU member states also expressed “grave concern” over China’s security law for Hong Kong, but agreed sanctions against China would not solve problems with Beijing.

“China and the EU are not each other’s systemic rivals, but comprehensive strategic partners”, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi had said in remarks shortly after.

Caught between Washington and Beijing

Earlier last month, China’s foreign minister said the US was pushing relations with Beijing to “the brink of a new Cold War”, and rejected what he said were US “lies” over the coronavirus, saying Beijing was open to an international effort to find its source.

But the EU’s chief diplomat Borrell told reporters on Monday (15 June) he had suggested to the US side to launch a “distinct bilateral dialogue” focused on China and the challenges it poses to the EU and US by its “actions and ambitions”.

“For us, it’s important to stay together with the US in order to share concerns and look for common ground to defend our values and our interest,” Borrell said.

State subsidies

Meanwhile, the European Commission outlined on Wednesday (17 June) new tools to thwart the disruption caused by heavily-subsidised foreign companies, especially Chinese ones, taking over European firms.

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton and Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager released the plans in a policy paper that the EU executive will propose as a draft law next year.

Although Vestager said the Commission did not have “a specific country” in mind, it is well known that Chinese firms have benefited in the past from subsidies and favourable loans given by Beijing by acquiring a large number of assets in Europe.

In reaction, the Chinese Mission to the EU the EU executive on Wednesday to avoid “sending negative signals” to the outside world and refrain from creating new trade barriers under the pretext of subsidies.

“China’s subsidy measures are primarily designed to encourage environmental protection and energy conservation, support R&D activities and innovation, and promote optimisation of corporate structure,” the mission spokesperson said in response to the Commission’s white paper.
Beijing will “strictly observe the WTO transparency principle on subsidies by making regular notification of the revision, adjustment and implementation of the relevant laws, regulations and measures,” the spokesperson added.

The Chinese ambassador voiced hopes on Thursday that the summit would “reaffirm the commitment to openness and cooperation and lend fresh impetus to the investment agreement negotiation.”

“We hope the EU will keep to the right direction by fostering a fair, impartial and non-discriminatory environment for China-EU cooperation,” he said.

The ambassador stressed that while cooperation should be strengthened in emerging areas such as green development and digital economy, “China remains firmly committed to opening up and will roll out more measures to expand opening up of its own accord”.

China has already pledged to open its economy in the past but has so far done so at a snail’s pace.

As China and the EU account for one-third of global GDP, the “world is looking to us to steer the course of post-corona recovery”, the ambassador said, stressing the hope that the summit would send “a strong signal of China and the EU jointly upholding multilateralism”.

While US President Donald Trump has recently announced Washington would pull out from the World Health Organisation, the Chinese ambassador stressed that “China and the EU need to jointly support WHO in playing the leading role, step up information and experience sharing, speed up vaccine and medicine development, increase the accessibility and affordability of vaccines, and contain the spread of the virus as quickly as possible”.

However, after Taiwan has been blocked from participating in WHO meetings by China, which considers the island a breakaway province, the international health body has been accused of being too lenient towards Beijing.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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