EU’s von der Leyen tells Xi differences must be addressed

BEIJING, Dec 7, 2023 (AFP)  President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday told Chinese leader Xi Jinping they must address the “imbalances and differences” between the bloc and China. Screen grab from AFPTV

By Peter CATTERALL

BEIJING, Dec 7, 2023 (AFP) – EU President Ursula von der Leyen told Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Thursday that the bloc and its biggest trading partner must address their differences, as they began the first in-person EU-China summit in over four years.

China and the EU have ramped up diplomatic engagement this year in an attempt to steer post-pandemic recovery and repair damaged ties, with a number of its commissioners visiting Beijing to restart high-level dialogue.

And in opening remarks, von der Leyen, flanked by European Council President Charles Michel and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, thanked Xi for the “warm welcome” on what is her second trip to China this year.

“But there are clear imbalances and differences that we must address,” she said.

“At times our interests coincide,” she said, pointing to EU-China cooperation on artificial intelligence and climate change.

“And when they do not, we need to address and responsibly manage the concerns that we have,” she said.

Michel, in turn, said the bloc was seeking a “stable and mutually beneficial” relationship with China.

But, he said, the EU would also “promote our European values including human rights and democracy” at the summit.

The bloc says it hopes the meetings will provide a chance to discuss areas of common interest.

In his opening remarks, President Xi told his European visitors they must “jointly respond to global challenges”.

Thursday’s talks are set to address more touchy topics too, from human rights and Beijing’s continued ties with Russia despite its war in Ukraine to the yawning EU-China trade gap.

Von der Leyen warned this week that the bloc would “not tolerate” that imbalance indefinitely.

“We have tools to protect our market,” she told AFP.

Beijing hit back on Wednesday, saying the bloc’s efforts to curb exports of sensitive tech to China while balancing trade didn’t “make sense”.

European officials have said repeatedly this year they aim to “derisk” their economic ties to China after the war in Ukraine exposed the continent’s energy dependence on Russia.

– ‘Zero trust’ –

Beijing’s goal this week will be to “hinder or delay derisking at a minimum cost”, Grzegorz Stec, an analyst at China-focused think tank MERICS, told a media briefing Wednesday.

Beijing will attempt to “project the image of a responsible global actor and to reassure European actors about the direction of the Chinese economy”, Stec said.

But on the eve of the summit, news broke that Italy had withdrawn from China’s vast Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has long been opposed to Italy’s participation in an initiative viewed by many as an attempt by Beijing to buy political influence — and whose economic benefits to Rome were limited.

Also on the agenda at the summit will be the fighting between Israel and Hamas — as well as Russia’s war in Ukraine.

China, which has not condemned Moscow’s February 2022 invasion of its neighbour, welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to Beijing in October, with Xi hailing their “deep friendship”.

Such camaraderie is unlikely in Thursday’s talks with EU leaders, who one analyst said had “zero trust” in Beijing.

“Both sides are unlikely to get what they want from the other side,” Nicholas Bequelin, a senior fellow at Yale’s Paul Tsai China Center, told AFP.

– Few offramps –

Beijing has said the meeting will “play an important role in building on the past and ushering in the future”.

“China and Europe are partners, not rivals, and their common interests far outweigh their differences,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said this week.

Von der Leyen and Michel’s schedule in the Chinese capital on Thursday will be tight.

The EU chiefs’ meeting with Xi will be followed by a working lunch.

They will then hold talks with Premier Li Qiang before attending an official dinner and a news conference in the evening.

The Europeans have said they will urge Beijing to use its ties with Moscow to push it to end its war against Ukraine.

While China has stopped short of providing military aid to Moscow, it has deepened economic ties as Western powers seek to isolate Russia.

War in the Middle East and tensions over self-ruled Taiwan will also feature prominently in the talks, the bloc has said.

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