The European Union has received what seems to be a warning from Chinese President Xi Jinping for the bloc not to view his country as a “rival”.
It came as Xi claimed at a summit in Beijing on December 8 that China was ready to view the EU as a major trade and economic partner.
At their first face-to-face meeting in four years, China and the EU’s top officials declared that the trade relationship between the Communist country and the bloc should be “better balanced”.
President of the European Council Charles Michel, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell were all in attendance.
Xi warned that Beijing expected Brussels to exercise “caution” when considering enacting what it said might be “restrictive” trade policies.
He said China and Europe should not view each other as “rivals” or “engage in confrontation”, regardless of their different political systems.
The summit was taking place just days after Italy decided to officially leave the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, a centrepiece of Xi’s foreign policy.
That came after Germany earlier this year decided it would regard China as being in “systemic rivalry” with it, rather than a partner.
According to Xi, China and the EU should co-operate and work together in mutually beneficial partnership.
The EU leaders pressed Beijing over the bloc’s current trade deficit with China – close to €400 billion and double of just two years ago – and stated that “unfair competition” from the East Asian nation would not be tolerated.
China said it did not believe it should be held accountable for that and underlined what it said was the fact that the deficit has been significantly reduced through this year.
Von der Leyen later told reporters that Beijing’s preferential treatment of domestic companies, the lack of market access for European businesses and an overcapacity in Chinese production were the “well-known” causes of China’s trade surplus with the EU.
China’s foreign ministry director-general for European affairs Wang Lutong said that if the EU wanted to benefit from China’s industrial capacity in the renewable energy sector, protectionist policies were not acceptable.
At the meeting in the Chinese capital, subjects as wide-ranging as medical devices, cosmetics and geographical indicators for food products – labelling where edibles originate – and Artificial Intelligence were among those discussed.
Wrapped up my mission to Beijing for the EU/China summit with a meeting with the ambassadors of the EU member states.
A chance to share insights of the exchanges with President Xi and Premier Li, and discuss challenges and opportunities in our complex relation with China. pic.twitter.com/L0SXSNizDy
— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) December 8, 2023
Alongside those talks, Xi also underlined the “strategic importance” of China-EU relations regarding world peace, stability and prosperity.
In addition, he urged both parties to improve mutual understanding, bolster strategic communication and resolve disagreements through constructive dialogue.
On December 4, EU leaders had been urged by China’s foreign minister Wang Yi to choose “peace and stability” over a “new Cold War”.
Xi called for increased co-operation in broader fields to strengthen the “bonds of interest” between the European and Chinese economies, citing what he said was their high degree of complementarity.
Despite all Xi’s efforts, analysts said Beijing’s backing of Russia and an expanding trade imbalance meant the European bloc was not in the mood to make any major compromises.
China has railed against the EU’s so-called “de-risking” policy to reduce its reliance on Chinese imports, especially of vital raw materials.
Beijing is also against the bloc’s ongoing anti-subsidy probe into Chinese electric vehicles (EVs). It maintains that “de-risking” and “reducing dependence” should not descend into weakening co-operation.
It also noted that the EU is ramping up subsidies in the EV battery industry, for example.
Alongside that, China’s director-general for European affairs Wang Lutong said that if the EU wanted to benefit from his country’s industrial capacity in the renewable energy sector, “protectionist policies” were not acceptable.
Beijing: “If you want us to support the EU in the green transition, do not be protectionist — you make the choice”https://t.co/6kP5vfjFQ6
— Adam Tooze (@adam_tooze) December 8, 2023
Michel reacted to Xi’s statements by underlining 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.
Von der Leyen said the China-EU relationship also had to “address challenges in a world with increasing geopolitical frictions”, pointing to the need to “ensure Russia stops its war of aggression against Ukraine”.
China has been accused of helping Russia in its war efforts while reaping economic gains at the same time.
A major goal of the EU visit was to push Xi to stop Chinese private companies from exporting dual-use, European-made goods to Russia that could be incorporated in its military campaign in Ukraine.
On that point, it seems little progress was made by the EU to convince China to significantly alter its standpoint regarding Russia.
If China’s companies were subject to unilateral sanctions, “definitely we will respond accordingly”, Wang Lutong said.
The EU leaders did say they adhered to the so-called one-China policy.
Following the European delegation’s meeting with XI and Premier Li Qiang, Michel stated the EU and China shared a “common interest” in a stable and positive relationship built on respect for the international rule-based order.
Despite the relative lack of concrete results, the fact that the summit took place at all, and then progressed smoothly, could be seen as progress, according to observers.