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2020 EU-China summit goes virtual

Matthias von Hein
September 13, 2020

Along with the pandemic, Angela Merkel, Xi Jinping and EU officials will have much to discuss via video conference. The EU is weighing human rights and business needs in the row between China and the US.

EU-China-Gipfel zu Markenschutz
Image: Reuters/Y. Herman

The EU-China summit was set to be a geopolitical high point of Germany's rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, with Chancellor Angela Merkel playing host. The eastern German city of Leipzig was to be the stage for the three-day summit, when Chinese President Xi Jinping would have met together with all 27 EU heads of state for the first time.

Germany's government canceled the physical summit in June because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now only protesters are coming to Leipzig.

The summit is being held virtually and has been shortened to one day. Merkel, European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will all be in attendance for Monday's video conference with Xi.

China's reputation has suffered of late within the European Union. The persecution of the Uighur Muslim minority and the arrests of protesters in Hong Kong have drawn condemnation from the European Parliament.

Lucrezia Poggetti, an analyst at the Berlin think tank Merics whose research focuses on EU-China relations, told DW that the way China's government had handled the coronavirus pandemic could also prove a point of contention. She said the country had engaged in what she called "mask diplomacy," which many EU officials had "seen as a shameless PR campaign that saw China promoting heavy-handedly its medical supplies to Europe and, in a lot of cases, actually, exports of medical supplies being branded as the aid."

'Systemic rival'

Officials of EU member states are rethinking the bloc's relationship with China as the country takes an increasingly aggressive foreign policy stance and tightens restrictions on expression domestically.

On the first page of a 2019 document laying out the bloc's new strategy for dealing with China, the European Commission declined to identify China as either merely an EU partner in the fight against climate change or an economic competitor, but as a "systemic rival" that promotes "alternative models of governance." The message was clear: China is trying to trying to establish its autocratic system of rule worldwide, as a competitor to EU-style democracy.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, underlined this point in an interview with France's Le Journal du Dimanche at the beginning of May. He said the European Union had been "a little naive" in its relationship with China and now was adopting a more realistic approach.

This has meant harsher rhetoric out of Brussels, such as press statements from Michel and von der Leyen after their video summit with Xi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the end of June. Michel talked about a great mutual economic dependency and necessary cooperation on combating climate change and the pandemic. Then came the "but."

"We have to recognize that we do not share the same values, political systems, or approach to multilateralism," Michel said. "We will engage in a clear-eyed and confident way, robustly defending EU interests and standing firm on our values."

Von der Leyen echoed that tone: "For our relations to develop further, they must become more rules-based and reciprocal, in order to achieve a real level playing field."

Von der Leyen and Michel speak during the EU-China online summit
Von der Leyen and Michel didn't mince words at the EU-China video summit in JuneImage: picture-alliance/dpa/European Council/D. Pignatelli

Standstill in investment deal

The EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) was supposed to be a step toward reaching that level playing field. Negotiations on the deal have been ongoing for six years. Its aim is more market access and fair competition, breaking down hurdles to investment, reducing the role of state-owned companies and anchoring sustainability.

From the point of view of EU companies, China has to make significant compromises to reach an agreement with the bloc. "The European side has made it very clear that it cannot meet China in the middle," Jörg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, told the German news agency DPA. Chinese firms in the bloc already operate in open markets with fair competition, he said, unlike EU firms in China. Beijing must "close the gap," Wuttke said — though he did not express optimism that that would happen.

During a visit to Brussels in December, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China's government would put the European Union at the top of its diplomatic agenda for 2020 and said the CAI was its most important economic policy project.

But Reinhard Bütikofer, a member of European Parliament for the Greens and chairman of the delegation for relations with China, said he had not seen progress. There hasn't been a breakthrough on any of the main fronts, he said in a Merics briefing.

Chinese market becoming more restrictive

Wang was once again in the EU at the beginning of September, after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had visited multiple capitals throughout central and southeastern Europe — a tour that the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel called "the anti-China trip."

"The Chinese government, I think, is particularly trying to avoid the establishment of a strong, united trans-Atlantic front on China," Poggetti said. "The Chinese government has probably been looking at recent developments with some concern regarding, for example, the potential establishment of a trans-Atlantic dialogue on China and [the] latest developments on Huawei, which include the signature during Pompeo's visit to central and eastern European countries recently of a memorandum of understanding on 5G, which follow, obviously, the announcements made by the UK and France that they plan to phase out Huawei equipment by 2027 and 2028."

The EU has still not found a uniform way of dealing with the Chinese telecommunications giant. For months, the United States has increased pressure on its allies to exclude Huawei from consideration for contracts for building their 5G infrastructure. US officials have warned that the state-backed company could use its products for espionage or to sabotage critical infrastructure. Germany's government has yet to take a clear stance on the issue.

Read moreThe battle of tech giants

Huawei building in Dusseldorf
Huawei and its role in the 5G infrastructure has been a sticking point in EU-China tiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Vennenbernd

Cool reception

Wang's first foreign trip during the coronavirus pandemic was a charm offensive aimed at EU officials. But the European Union's new stance on China resulted in a cooler-than-expected reception.

In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called on China to rescind its national security law, which critics say prevents freedom of expression in Hong Kong. He also called for a UN observer mission to be allowed into the northwestern Xinjiang province following reports about the persecution of Uighurs there. He also clearly rejected Wang's threats toward the Czech Republic, which recently sent a diplomatic envoy to Taiwan, which China does not consider an independent republic.

During Wang's visit to Berlin, Germany's government published its "Indo-Pacific Guidelines," stating the Cabinet's official intent to diversify relationships in Asia. Germany wants to position itself more broadly, establish free trade deals and reduce its considerable economic dependence on China. "We are strengthening the idea of a multipolar world in which no country has to decide between two poles of power," Maas said when unveiling the guidelines, making a clear reference to the US and China.

It is this geopolitical conflict that will also be at the forefront of the EU-China summit.

Adapted from German by Dave Raish.

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