China wants end to 'confrontation' but EU in no mood for compromise

EU officials take issue with China's support for Russia and a huge trade deficit, amid pressure to 'de-risk' ties.
By Gu Ting for RFA Mandarin
2023.12.07
China wants end to 'confrontation' but EU in no mood for compromise China's President Xi Jinping (R) speaks next to China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (2nd R) at a meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (L), European Council President Charles Michel (2nd L) and European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell (3rd L) during the 24th EU–China Summit in Beijing, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023.
(AFP/European Council Press Service/Dario Pignatelli)

The ruling Chinese Communist Party dialed up its bid to shore up economic ties with the European Union during the China-EU summit in Beijing on Thursday, though analysts said the bloc was in no mood for concessions over Beijing's support for Russia and a growing trade deficit.

At a meeting with President of the European Council Charles Michel and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for cooperation not "confrontation," as the EU delegation considered imposing trade sanctions on China if Beijing didn't stop exporting supplies to Russia for use in its war in Ukraine.

"We should not view each other as rivals just because our systems are different, reduce cooperation because competition exists, or engage in confrontation because there are disagreements," Xi told the meeting in comments reported by state news agency Xinhua.

"China is ready to work with the EU for mutual benefit and common development," he said, calling for new modes of cooperation to jointly improve industrial and supply chains. 

Michel responded by saying that trade and economic ties needed to be "more balanced, reciprocal and mutually beneficial." 

"We will continue to work for equal opportunities for our companies," he said.

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a press conference in Beijing, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. (Xiaoyu Yin/Reuters)

Von der Leyen said the relationship also needs to "address challenges in a world with increasing geopolitical frictions." 

"We must all work to ensure Russia stops its war of aggression against Ukraine,” she said, highlighting what analysts said was the top priority for the E.U. delegation, which also included Europe's top diplomat Josep Borell.

"The impact of China’s response to the war on mutual relations cannot be underestimated," Cora Jungbluth wrote in a Dec. 7 commentary for the Global & European Dynamics blog. 

She blamed "a great deal" of the recent deterioration on China’s increasingly cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin.

Yawning trade gap

A major focus of the one-day visit is to put pressure on Xi to stop Chinese companies exporting European-made, dual-use goods to Russia to aid its military operations, Reuters quoted EU officials as saying.

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Ukrainian soldiers carry the coffin of a Ukrainian serviceman killed fighting Russian troops in the Zaporizhzhya region, during a funeral service at a cemetery in Kyiv, on Nov. 29, 2023. (Roman Pilipey/AFP)

The bloc also wants to address its 400-billion-euro (US$431.7 billion) trade deficit with China, while China is unhappy about an anti-subsidy investigation into Chinese electric vehicles and Brussels' "de-risking" policy, which would reduce reliance on Chinese imports, including critical raw materials like lithium and gallium, the agency reported.

Chinese commerce ministry spokesperson He Yadong said on Thursday that the investigation "seriously disrupts and distorts the global automotive industry chain ... and will have a negative impact on China-EU economic and trade relations." 

Yet there are already signs that China is keen to improve ties, including its recent offer of visa-free entry to citizens of Germany, France, Netherlands, Italy and Spain, the bloc's five largest economies.

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Cars are loaded onto a ship for export at the port in Lianyungang, in China’s eastern Jiangsu province, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023. (AFP)

"China’s domestic economy is struggling with pandemic recovery and domestic issues," Jungbluth wrote. "Beijing, therefore, hopes for and is indeed in need of better and more reliable EU-China relations."

The EU also took issue with China's military activities around democratic Taiwan, saying it opposes "unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion."

Human Rights Concerns

It also included a paragraph about China's human rights record, "notably systemic human rights violations in Xinjiang and Tibet, forced labor, the treatment of human rights defenders and persons belonging to minorities, as well as the continued erosion of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong, where China should honor its prior commitments."

Human rights activists said there should be no "business as usual" with the Chinese government, however.

"We encourage you to make it clear, both privately and publicly, that there can be no business as usual with the Chinese government as it intensifies pervasive repression across China and beyond, and that the EU will pursue accountability for crimes against humanity and other severe human rights violations as a top priority," the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said in a Dec. 4 letter addressed to Michel and von der Leyen.

Citing "crimes against humanity" in Xinjiang, ongoing repression and forcible assimilation in Tibetan and the erasure of Hong Kong's freedoms, the letter also warned that Beijing is extending its repression of its critics overseas, while undermining international human rights mechanisms through the U.N. system.

"We are disappointed that the EU recently resumed a human rights dialogue with China, which has been rendered meaningless by the Chinese authorities’ unwillingness to genuinely engage," said the letter, signed by interim China Director Maya Wang and EU Director Philippe Dam.

It called on the bloc to consider further targeted sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for serious abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and elsewhere in the country.

‘No obvious progress’

Former 1989 Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan said EU leaders have made it clear that they won't be decoupling from the Chinese economy any time soon.

"China’s overseas opposition movement needs to strengthen its lobbying efforts in Europe and the United States," Wang wrote in a post to his X account. "It is our responsibility to speak even if the other party does not listen."

An independent Chinese scholar who requested anonymity said that while Sino-U.S. ties appear to have improved somewhat following the Xi-Biden summit in San Francisco, the same can't be said of the relationship with Brussels.

"EU leaders have many demands on this visit, including economic and political demands, from the Russia-Ukraine war to the Israeli-Gaza issue," he said.

"[Yet] I think this summit seems to be just dialogue for the sake of dialogue, with no obvious progress in narrowing the widening differences between the two sides."

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China's President Xi Jinping (R) speaks next to China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi during the 24th EU–China Summit in Beijing, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. (AFP/European Council Press Service/Dario Pignatelli)

Financial commentator Cai Shenkun said that Chinese leaders will also be stepping up its United Front outreach and influence operations behind the scenes, hoping to exert pressure on Brussels via its allies there.

"I don't expect the Europeans to make many concessions on issues of principle," Cai said. "China will [likely] make some compromises."

Observer Research Foundation fellow Shairee Malhotra said there was a general lack of trust on the EU side.

"Factors such as Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, human rights violations in Xinjiang, and pandemic-era supply chain disruptions have deteriorated European perceptions of China," she wrote in a Dec. 6 commentary.

"The downswing in EU-China ties was further accentuated by Beijing’s posture in the Russia-Ukraine conflict." 

"Thus, a major trust deficit has accompanied the trade deficit," Malhotra said.

Translated with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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