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The stakes are high as Chinese leader Xi Jinping hosts European Union leaders in Beijing for a closely watched summit on Thursday that could decide whether the two major economies can resolve deep trade tensions, or cause them to escalate further. further.
The one-day meeting is the first face-to-face summit between the EU and China in four years and follows a terse and frosty virtual event earlier last year. described by EU diplomat Josep Borell as a “dialogue of the deaf”.
Brussels came with a list of key economic grievances that its leaders say they need to address to soften ties with its most important trading partner. Meanwhile, Beijing has been busy trying to shore up relationships with its key business counterparts and foreign companies as it grapples with growing economic challenges in its country.
“As we stand at a new starting point for China-EU relations, we must summarize historical experience…demonstrate wisdom and responsibility, and remain committed to the correct positioning of our comprehensive strategic partnership,” Xi told the leaders during a meeting in Diaoyutai. State pension on Thursday.
The two sides should “continuously improve political mutual trust”, “build strategic consensus” and “eliminate all types of interference”, he stressed.
His words echoed comments by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi earlier in the week, who touted the visit as an opportunity to “take China-EU relations to a new level with new perspectives.”
Li Mingjiang, associate professor of international relations at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the priority for Chinese leaders is to stabilize the domestic economy, and Beijing sees the EU can play a valuable role.
“China has a strong incentive right now to further improve relations with European countries,” he said.
But expectations of breakthroughs were low, given deep-rooted points of difference between the two sides, from economic relations to their markedly different positions on Russia’s war against Ukrainewhich after two years China has still not condemned.
The meeting comes amid a broad recalibration of European policy towards China. Earlier this year, the bloc began pushing to “de-risk” China’s European supply chains and secure critical technologies amid growing concerns about Beijing’s global economic ambitions and practices.
The visiting leaders, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, signaled before their visit that they were willing to put pressure on Xi and the Premier Li Qiang on a list of economic concerns.
“China is the EU’s most important trading partner. But there are clear imbalances and differences that we must address. “We both recognize the importance of reducing risks and strengthening the resilience of our economies,” von der Leyen told Xi as they began their meeting on Thursday.
In the run-up to the summit, European leaders spoke candidly about their sticking points and hinted that they would take a tougher line if progress was not made.
Key among those issues is the huge trade deficit between the EU and China, which Brussels attributes to Beijing’s subsidies to Chinese companies and barriers to entry into the Chinese market.
Borrell last month in a speech to EU ambassadors warned that “If China continues to deny the reality and consequences of this imbalance, it risks seeing growing demand in Europe for more protection.”
In September, the bloc announced that it was starting an investigation on China’s state support for electric vehicle manufacturers such as imports on the rise of its cars fueled fears about the future of European automakers.
China has it crashed The move is a “protectionist practice,” claiming that the rapid growth of its electric vehicle industry is due to “technological innovation, free competition and a complete industrial supply chain.”
He has also rejected Europe’s “de-risking,” launching a diplomatic campaign criticizing the policy as illogical and politically motivated, with State-backed media points to von der Leyen in particular for spearheading it.
In comments published Thursday by state media, Xi also made an apparent reference to politics, telling the visiting leaders: “We should not consider ourselves rivals just because we have different systems, nor reduce cooperation just because there is competition, nor engage in confrontation.” “just because we have differences.”
Ahead of Thursday’s summit, closely watched by Beijing, analysts said Beijing might be willing to make some gestures to further open its market to European investment or address the trade deficit, but there were low expectations in Europe for any major progress. .
“Europeans have realized that concrete results will be limited. “European officials and businesspeople feel that (China’s) ‘open door’ policy no longer exists,” said Philippe Le Corre, senior fellow at the Paris-based Asia Society Policy Institute, referring to the perception that China is no longer a hospitable place. for foreign businesses.
The visiting leaders were expected to reiterate during their visit that the “de-risking” policy to diversify supply chains does not mean they wish to decouple their closely connected economies. And both sides are also expected to look for areas of collaboration.
“Von der Leyen and Michel are interested in keeping lines of communication (open),” Le Corre said.
“(That) especially with the unknown outcome of the 2024 US elections: what would happen if a new Trump administration came back with a trade sanctions policy against the EU? “What would happen if he withdrew from NATO?” he said.
For Xi, the meeting comes immediately after a largely friendly summit with US President Joe Biden, where despite tensions the two sides reached important agreements, including on military communication and environmental Protection.
Improving ties with Europe may be “even more important” for Xi, according to Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. Amid competition with the United States, Beijing does not want the EU to “side with Washington,” he said.
Over the past year, Chinese officials have made multiple diplomatic efforts to repair relations with Europe.
But even so, Xi “won’t make big concessions to the EU without getting something big in return,” according to Tsang.
Beijing this month appeared to make a gesture of goodwill by allowing visa-free travel to passport holders from a handful of European countries, including France and Germany. And in comments on Thursday, state media quoted Xi as saying China was seeking a “high-level opening” and was “willing to regard the EU as a key partner in economic and trade cooperation,” although no further details were included. details.
Beijing’s crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong, alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic had already strained ties long before China refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On Thursday, the visiting European leaders had been Xi is expected to pressure Xi to ensure that Chinese companies do not support the Russian war effort. Unlike the United States, Europe has so far refrained from blacklisting Chinese companies believed to be supplying goods that could be used on the battlefield.
Both sides were also expected to discuss the current conflict between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza.
Beijing has not condemned Hamas for the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that killed about 1,200 people and sparked the latest conflict. establishing your stance at odds with Europe and the United States. Instead, he focuses on criticism of Israel’s attacks on the enclave that have killed more than 15,000 people, according to Hamas.-led by the Gaza Ministry of Health.
Speaking to Xi and other leaders at the beginning of the meeting, von der Leyen called for an “end to Russian aggression against Ukraine” and all possible efforts to “work toward a two-state solution in the Middle East.”
“As the world’s great powers, the European Union and China have global responsibilities. “We have a shared interest in peace and security,” the EU chief said.