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EU takes on China over Hong Kong, coronavirus, and curbs on investors

The atmosphere has become gloomier since the last EU-China summit in 2019, when both sides pledged unity in the fight against Trump’s 'America First' agenda.

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Brussles/Beijing: The European Union and China sparred over geopolitics and economics on Monday when the heads of the bloc’s main institutions held video conferences with the Chinese premier and president.

EU criticism of a Chinese plan to curb Hong Kong’s autonomy, allegations that China has spread disinformation about the coronavirus and frustration over Beijing’s curbs on foreign investors featured prominently in the talks, according to European officials in Brussels.

Charles Michel, the chair of gatherings of EU national leaders, and Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, spoke with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and then with President Xi Jinping. The meetings were the first between the Chinese side and the EU institutions’ new leaders, who took office in December.

“Our discussions today were open and substantive,” Michel told reporters afterward. “We discussed many topics — topics we agree on but, of course, we discussed also topics we disagree on.”

The atmosphere has become gloomier since the last EU-China summit in April 2019, when both sides pledged unity in the fight to uphold the multilateral order being challenged by U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda and the Europeans claimed progress in prodding the Chinese government to pursue fairer economic policies.

While that meeting 14 months ago produced a much-hailed EU-China statement, no joint declaration emerged from Monday’s deliberations. Also, unlike last year, the Chinese side on Monday opted against a joint press conference with the EU.

Chinese foreign ministry official Wang Lutong played down the absence of a joint statement at a briefing with reporters in Beijing on Tuesday.

“Please show some mercy to us,” said Wang, the director general of the ministry’s European Affairs Department. “We’ve worked our heads off,” he said, adding that not every EU-China summit has produced a joint statement.

A controversial new Chinese national-security measure for Hong Kong has so far prompted only finger-wagging in Europe. Michel said the EU had “grave concerns” about the move, while von der Leyen urged Beijing to reconsider its plan.

“There was candid and frank discussion on the security legislation in Hong Kong,” Wang said. He reiterated China’s position that the issue was a “domestic affair” and that China “opposes any foreign interference.”

EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell, who joined Michel and von der Leyen for the talks, has dismissed the notion of European penalties against Beijing. Borrell said on May 26: “I don’t think sanctions against China is going to be the solution to our problems with China, which are more political and related with strategic issues.”

The view partly reflects China’s status as the EU’s biggest trading partner after the U.S.

Dismantling Disinformation

The coronavirus pandemic was a source of tension after von der Leyen’s commission published a June 10 report that named China among “foreign actors” responsible for spreading disinformation about Covid-19 in the EU.

“The European Union is very active on dismantling the disinformation,” von der Leyen said at the press conference on Monday alongside Michel. “We put against them the facts and the figures that are necessary to know.”

On the economic front, the EU’s main goal at Monday’s summit was to give political impetus to negotiations begun in 2013 with China on a pact that would reduce Chinese restrictions on European companies. At their meeting in April last year, both sides set a target date of end-2020 for reaching an “ambitious” investment deal.

Since then, the EU has said a Chinese offer to scale back barriers to foreign investors fails to do enough to create “a more level playing field” for European businesses.

The bloc is pressing for, among other things, improved access in the automobile, biotechnology, telecommunications and computer-services sectors, a senior European official told reporters on Monday on the condition of anonymity.

Von der Leyen said China needed to give the matter high-level political attention if the year-end target date for an accord is to have any chance of being met.

“We are committed to making swift and substantial progress,” von der Leyen said. “We count on the Chinese leadership to match our level of ambition.”

Xi said after Monday’s summit that China and the EU should accelerate negotiations on the investment pact, according to a statement on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website. The Chinese president also said that both sides should keep their markets open to each other.

“Some real progress has been made” on the pact, Wang said on Tuesday. “We’ve still got half a year before the deadline set by leaders from two sides. We’ve got to be patient.”

In addition to pushing for more access to the Chinese market, Europe is bolstering its defenses against economic expansion by China in ways that have irked Beijing. The EU has a three-pronged strategy for dealing with a more economically expansionist China:

  • Making maximum use — within the World Trade Organization framework — of tariffs to counter imports allegedly sold at unfairly low prices
  • Tightening oversight of foreign direct investments on national-security grounds
  • Toughening antitrust scrutiny of takeover bids by subsidized companies abroad – Bloomberg

Also read: China’s expansionist approach is raising fresh challenges for it, from the US to EU


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