Hong KongCNN —
Stakes are high as Chinese leader Xi Jinping hosts European Union leaders in Beijing for a closely watched summit Thursday, which could decide whether the two major economies will be able to resolve deep trade tensions – or see those spiral further.
The one-day gathering is the first in-person EU-China summit in four years and follows a terse and frosty virtual event early last year, later described by EU diplomat Josep Borell as a “dialogue of the deaf.”
Brussels is arriving with a list of key economic grievances its leaders say they need to see addressed to smooth ties with their most important trade partner. Beijing, meanwhile, has been busy trying to shore up relations with its key trading counterparts and foreign companies as it struggles with mounting economic challenges at home.
Earlier this week Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi touted the visit as a chance to “push China-EU relations to a new level with new prospects” and called for the two sides to “stay calm and focus on pragmatic cooperation.”
“For Chinese leaders, the priority now is to stabilize the (domestic) economic situation … (for this reason) China has strong incentive right now to further improve relations with European countries,” said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor of international relations at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
But expectations are low for major breakthroughs, given entrenched points of difference between the two sides from economic relations to their starkly different positions on Russia’s war against Ukraine, which two years on China has yet to condemn.
And experts will be watching closely for whether Xi is ready to work with European leaders on key issues, despite its rhetoric and economic pressures.
On the table
The meeting comes as Europe has undertaken a broad recalibration of its policy toward China. Earlier this year the bloc began its push to “de-risk” European supply chains from China and secure critical technologies amid rising concerns about Beijing’s global ambitions and economic practices.
Visiting leaders European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and top EU diplomat Josep Borrell have signaled that they will arrive in the Chinese capital ready to press Xi and Premier Li Qiang, who will chair the event, on a list of economic concerns.
In the lead up to the summit, European leaders have spoken frankly about those sticking points – and implied that they would take a harder line if progress wasn’t made.
Key among those issues is a gaping trade deficit between the EU and China, which Brussels blames on Beijing’s subsidies for Chinese companies and barriers to entry into the Chinese market.
Borrell last month in an address to EU ambassadors warned that “if China continues to deny the reality and consequences of this imbalance, it runs the risk of seeing a rising demand in Europe for more protection.”
In September, the bloc announced it was launching an investigation into China’s state support for makers of electric vehicles as soaring imports of their cars stoked fears for the future of European auto manufacturers.
China has slammed the move as a “protectionist practice,” claiming the rapid growth of its electric vehicle industry is down to “technological innovation, free competition and a complete industrial supply chain.”
It’s also pushed back on Europe’s “de-risking,” launching a diplomatic campaign criticizing the policy as illogical and politically motivated, with state-backed media criticizing von der Leyen in particular for spearheading the policy.
In Thursday’s closely watched summit, Beijing may be willing to make some gestures toward further opening its market for European investment or addressing the trade deficit, but there are low expectations in Europe for any major progress, analysts say.
“Europeans have come to realize the concrete outcomes will be limited. European officials and corporate people feel that (China’s) ‘open-door’ policy is no longer,” said Philippe Le Corre, a Paris-based senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, referring to perceptions that China is no longer a hospitable place for foreign business.
Another key point of discussion remains Russia’s nearly two-years-long war in Ukraine and Xi’s continued close relationship with fellow autocrat Vladimir Putin. That relationship that contributed to a significant deterioration in ties between the Europe and China, especially as Xi has given no sign of pushing the Russian leader to withdraw troops as Europe urged.
But the visiting leaders are also expected to reiterate to China’s Xi that the “de-risking” policy to diversify supply chains does not mean they wish to decouple their closely connected economies. And both sides are also expected look for areas of collaboration.
“Von der Leyen and Michel are keen to maintain (open) lines of communication,” said Le Corre.
“(That’s) especially with the unknown result of the 2024 US elections — what if a new Trump administration was to come back with a trade sanctions policy against the EU? What if he was to disengage with NATO?” he said.
For Xi, the meeting comes on the heels of a largely friendly summit with American President Joe Biden, where despite tensions the two sides reached significant agreements including on military communication and environmental protection.
Improving ties with Europe may be “even more important” for Xi, according to Steve Tsang, director of SOAS China Institute at the University of London. Amid competition with the US, Beijing is keen to not see the EU “side with Washington,” he said.
But even still, Xi “will not make major concessions to the EU without getting something big in return,” according to Tsang.
This month Beijing has appeared to make a goodwill gesture by allowing visa-free travel to passport holders from a handful of European countries including France and Germany.
Its official comments ahead of the summit have also suggested Beijing hopes the meeting can help the two sides to revamp their ties with a “blueprint” for the future – a sentiment that fits with a ramping up Chinese officials’ diplomatic efforts to repair those relations with Europe over the past year.
But Beijing’s crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong, alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic had also already strained ties long before China refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On Thursday, visiting European leaders are expected to push Xi to ensure that Chinese firms are not supporting the Russian war effort. Unlike the US, Europe so far has refrained from blacklisting Chinese companies believed to be providing goods that could be used on the battlefield.
The two sides are also likely to discuss the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza.
Beijing has not condemned Hamas for the October 7 attack on Israel that killed roughly 1,200 people and sparked the latest conflict – setting its stance at odds with Europe and the US. It’s instead focused criticism of Israel’s strikes on the enclave which have killed more than 15,000 people, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health.
Last month, von der Leyen said China and Europe have a “shared interest” in stability in the Middle East and called on China to play a role using any influence over Hamas and longtime backer Iran to avoid an escalation of the conflict.
“China’s actions impact our security, our sovereignty and our prosperity. And we have to be very frank on this, as a foundation for a constructive relationship,” the EU chief said at the time.
In separate comments also last month, she alluded to the stakes of navigating the relationship: “Getting China right has never been more important than today.”
Source : CNN World