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EU's von der Leyen addresses lawmakers on China ties

Published April 18, 2023last updated April 18, 2023

There's a growing debate in the EU about how to handle an increasingly assertive China and lessen the bloc's economic reliance on the Asian giant.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
The European Parliament is debating what the bloc's relations with China should look likeImage: Andy Wong/AP Photo/picture alliance

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday addressed members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on the bloc's strategy toward China.    

There has been a growing debate in the European Union in recent months about how to deal with an increasingly powerful Beijing. 

"China has now turned the page on the era of 'reform and opening' and is moving into a new era of security and control," von der Leyen told EU lawmakers. 

She underlined the need for the EU to carve out its "own distinct European approach" for dealing with China. 

She noted decoupling with China was not "viable" and "desirable," but stressed that there's "clearly a need for Europe to work on de-risking some important and sensitive parts of our relationship" with Beijing. 

Von der Leyen: Decoupling from China not viable or desirable

Concerns over Ukraine and Taiwan

The speech comes shortly after she joined French President Emmanuel Macron on a recent high-profile state visit to Beijing. 

During the trip, von der Leyen warned Chinese President Xi Jinping against supporting Russia's war in Ukraine by supplying Moscow with weapons.

European leaders have sought Xi's help in ending the war, but they don't view Beijing as a key mediator given its "no-limits" friendship with Moscow.

The EU is also worried about a military escalation in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing views self-ruled Taiwan as a Chinese province and has vowed to reunite it with the mainland, even by using force if necessary.

China launched military drills around the democratic island just after von der Leyen and Macron left, following a meeting between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California.

Von der Leyen said on Tuesday that the EU's "one-China policy is longstanding."

"We have consistently called for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and we stand strongly against any unilateral change of the status quo, in particular by the use of force."

China's President Xi Jinping, center, his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, left, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meet in Beijing
Von der Leyen and Macron recently met Xi in BeijingImage: Ludovic Marin/AP/picture alliance

Tackling the uneven playing field

Although there are differences in the approaches of individual national governments, depending on their economic dependency on China, at the EU level, Beijing has been regarded as "a partner, a competitor and systemic rival" in recent years.  

This has led to an increase in EU efforts to ensure a level-playing field when it comes to business and investment ties, as well as to reduce the bloc's reliance on China for critical resources

Von der Leyen also said that the EU-China trade relationship is becoming increasingly imbalanced.

While both sides trade more than €2.3 billion ($2.5 billion) worth of goods and services every day, China enjoys a huge surplus, with the EU's trade deficit more than tripling over the past decade.

"There is an urgent need to rebalance our relationship on the basis of transparency, predictability and reciprocity," von der Leyen told MEPs, calling for greater access for European firms to the Chinese market, more transparency on state subsidies, and protection for intellectual property rights. 

She also called for increased EU resilience and less reliance on China in critical sectors, such as energy, pharmaceutical products and food security.

sri/nm (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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