EU, China make progress on investment deal despite human rights tensions

Chinese President Xi Jinping (top L), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (bottom L), European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (bottom R) and European Council President Charles Michel (top R) appear on screens as they attend the 'EU-China leaders' meeting via video conference' from Brussels, Belgium. 14 September 2020. [EPA-EFE/YVES HERMAN]

The leaders of the EU and China agreed to speed up negotiations to conclude a long-standing investment deal during a virtual summit on Monday (14 September), despite Europe’s lingering concerns over Beijing’s human rights record and its treatment of Hong Kong.

However, EU leaders told Chinese President Xi Jinping that the bloc would no longer be taken advantage of and demanded a fairer relationship in trade.

“Europe needs to be a player, not a playing field,” European Council President Charles Michel told reporters following a video summit with Xi.

“We want more fairness. We want a more balanced relationship that also means reciprocity and a level playing field,” he said, adding that the summit was “another step forward in forging a more balanced relationship with China”.

It was the second leaders’ meeting between EU and Chinese officials since June.

While the initial summit lost its official in-person character due to the COVID-19 pandemic, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a full EU27-China summit will probably take place in Brussels next year, if the health situation allows.

“I feel that today we had a good, open and honest dialogue which should be continued,” Merkel told reporters.

Moving on investment?

The negotiations between the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Michel, Merkel and Xi Jinping ended with promises to speed up negotiations on an investment treaty before the end of the year.

“We put on pressure … to make progress on the investment agreement,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters following the virtual talks.

“Overall, cooperation with China must be based on certain principles – reciprocity, fair competition. We are different social systems, but while we are committed to multilateralism, it must be rules-based,” she added.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, von der Leyen said it was a positive sign that China had sent a high-level team to negotiate on the investment pact.

“Now we have agreement on three important issues,” von der Leyen told reporters. “First of all, on the disciplines regarding the behaviours of state-owned enterprises, then on technology transfer, and on transparency on subsidies.”

However, she emphasised that “there is still a lot that remains to be done in other important and difficult chapters of the agreement, particularly in two areas: market access and sustainable development.”

China needs to allow “rebalancing of the asymmetry” in access and “convince us that it’s worth having an investment agreement,” she stressed.

Brussels said progress has been made on issues such as forced technology transfer, but still wants China to open up sectors such as telecoms, IT, health, financial services and manufacturing.

Food protection deal

Ahead of the discussions, the two sides signed an agreement to protect each other’s exported food and drink items from “usurpation and imitation.”

According to the deal, they pledged to respect the names, or geographical indications (GI), a label used on a product to specify its origin, of 100 European regional food designations and 100 Chinese equivalents.

“The EU list of GIs to be protected in China includes iconic GI products such as Cava, Champagne, Feta, Irish whiskey, Münchener Bier, Ouzo, Polska Wódka, Porto, Prosciutto di Parma and Queso Manchego,” an EU statement said.

Human rights dialogue

Pressure has been rising in recent weeks on the EU and Germany to take a stronger stance against China on the detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province, and against Beijing’s new security law cracking down on free speech in Hong Kong.
EU leaders stressed they had urged China to refrain from unilateral actions in the South China Sea, and raised “grave concerns” about the National Security Law in Hong Kong and the persecution of the Uighur minority.
Asked by reporters if Beijing would take notice of the EU’s human rights concerns, Merkel said that “we will see what comes out of it” and that Xi had offered envoys to visit the Xinjiang province as part of an ongoing human rights dialogue.

“That does not mean that there was agreement about these issues,” she added.

China’s Xi was not part of the post-summit press conference and there was no joint statement, but the state-owned Xinhua News Agency reported that Xi rejected any interference in Chinese affairs, particularly on human rights.

“Chinese people will not accept ‘an instructor’ on human rights and oppose ‘double standards’, Xi was quoted as saying during the summit.

“China is willing to strengthen exchanges with the European side based on the principle of mutual respect so that the two sides can both make progress.”

Ahead of the meeting, EU lawmakers in the European Parliament had sent a joint letter to Merkel, Michel, and von der Leyen calling for “targeted sanctions and asset freezes against Chinese officials responsible for policies violating human rights.”

“The upcoming EU-China summit represents an idea opportunity to match the EU’s rhetoric regarding human rights violations in China with concrete action,” the MEPs wrote.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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