The EU and China were barely able to avoid a trade war this summer, but now European and Chinese leaders are meeting in Beijing. Europeans want to find out more about China's recently announced reforms.
The European Union and China have a 500 billion euro ($673 billion) relationship. That's how much trade between the 28-member bloc and China amounted to in 2012, which made China the EU's second-most important trading partner while China did more business with the EU than any single country.
However, a series of disputes over punitive tariffs on steel tubes, wine and solar cells threatened the relationship between Brussels and Beijing and brought the prospect of a trade war into sight.
Then Chinese Vice Premier Ma Kai visited Brussels and spoke with conciliatory tones about a "comprehensive plan for the future of EU-China relations," and even talks to "ensure China's readiness that the cooperation can be lifted to a higher level." The parties also agreed to begin negotiations for a bilateral investment agreement.
The European Union and China are not only trading partners: for the past 10 years, they have also maintained a "strategic partnership," which has been popular on both sides. The EU has a total of 10 partnerships while China maintains 38 of them.
The partnership is made up of some 50 dialogue forums with regular high-level meetings and annual summits. Often times such summits seem to be carefully choreographed rituals that are the results of time-consuming preparations that produce little of consequence.
The 16th EU-China summit, which starts Thursday (21.11.2013), could be an exception. Not only because both parties put great importance to the bilateral relations, but also because the Central Committee of China's Communist Party presented a comprehensive, 60-point reform package a week ago.
"I am sure that the Europeans, who are the first to be in Beijing after that meeting, will use the occasion and try to collect information, to try to get an opinion from the Chinese leadership," Francois Godement, director of the China program of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.
Liu Luqun, a professor at the German department of Beijing University, also said the results of the Central Committee will play a significant role at the EU-China summit, because "the reform policy will continue to develop and the market will play a deciding role in the distribution of resources and capital."
The Central Committee's 60-point resolution addresses many issues of interest to the EU delegation - particularly the relaxing the one-child policy, and the closing of re-education of labor camps. The EU continues to maintain formal talks with China on human rights issues. Stavros Lambrinides, the EU's human rights commissioner, visited China in September and was critical of the situation in China at the time.
The EU delegation, led by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, will be especially interested in the planned economic and financial reforms. The announcement that such reforms would take place sent international stock exchanges skyrocketing at the beginning of the week. The main key points were: A dividend paid by state-owned enterprise will strengthen the social security and small and medium-sized private banks will be allowed. The Chinese currency, the remnibi will be made more freely available and the exchange rates and interest rates will also be less regulated. Also, more industries will be opened up for private and foreign capital investments. At the same time, the market will play more of a role in determining prices for transportation, telecommunications, water, and energy.
After the opening of the first free trade zone in Shanghai in September, additional free trade zones are now being discussed. Although new reforms are to be implemented until 2020, many European companies already see new opportunities in the Chinese market.
One of the opportunities viewed is the urbanization of China. In coming decades, the state expects to resettle hundreds of millions of people from rural areas to cities, some of which have not even been built yet. Urban development is a major focus of the EU's aid policy for China. The EU-China exhibition for urban development has opened on Wednesday, shortly before the EU-China summit officially started.
Europeans also have much to offer in terms of energy efficiency, building, transport and services such as sanitation, sustainable development and so forth, said Godement. There is also a special agreement between the EU and China when it comes to urban planning. Li Keqiang, then vice premier, signed the agreement in May 2012. This time he will sit across the EU delegation as head of government.