Earlier today, Chinese president Xi Jinping met virtually with Germany’s Angela Merkel, European Council President Charles Michel, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a virtual summit. As Beijing promotes the summit as a successful milestone for future cooperation, what are the key takeaways for the EU—which has found itself in the middle of Washington and Beijing on numerous occasions?
Experts with GMF’s Asia program in both the U.S. and Europe are weighing in on the meeting and what it could portend for EU-China relations moving forward. Short perspectives from Noah Barkin and Mareike Ohlberg in Berlin, Andrew Small in Washington, and Peter Chase, a senior fellow in GMF’s Brussels office, are below – and all are available speak directly.
Noah Barkin, Senior Visiting Fellow, Asia Program - Berlin
“There was very little coming out of this virtual summit to convince the sceptics that China is prepared to make concessions the EU is calling for. On the investment agreement, the EU side made clear that there was a lot of work still to be done. Merkel, when asked directly, sounded less than hopeful that a deal could be clinched by the end of the year. On climate, the two sides will continue to talk. But it is hard to imagine Beijing moving forward its target date for peak emissions to 2025, as the EU wants, at a time when its top priority is ensuring a strong economic recovery from COVID-19. The most interesting aspect of this encounter was the prominent role that human rights played, particularly Hong Kong and Xinjiang. This reflects the growing importance of values in this relationship, and the pressure European leaders are under to call Beijing out. The era when the EU could keep these issues behind closed doors is over. Europe's line on China is hardening, and nothing that happened today will change that.”
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Mareike Ohlberg, Senior Fellow, Asia Program - Berlin
“It was good to see the European side address Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong and put pressure on the Chinese government for abducting and imprisoning a European citizen, Gui Minhai. As expected, there was little concrete outcome from the summit. Especially when it comes to the investment agreement, future negotiations will need to proceed from the basic understanding that without building a very broad international coalition, it will be almost impossible to get the Chinese government to agree to structural reforms of its economy and enforce them. (Even with a broad coalition, this will still be difficult.) Instead, Europe should focus and follow up on concrete issues. It also needs to continue pushing back against China’s violations of international norms. Otherwise it risks encouraging Beijing to change the status quo further.”
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Andrew Small, Senior Transatlantic Fellow, Asia Program - Washington, DC
“The political mood in Europe on China has soured significantly, over issues ranging from Hong Kong and the Chinse government’s handling of the pandemic to longer-running problems with China’s non-market economic practices. This summit was seen by the European side as a critical moment for Beijing to signal whether it intended to make any moves that might address their concerns. Without progress on the investment agreement and climate commitments, in particular, the sense was that Europe’s China policy would inevitably need to move towards greater emphasis on competition and rivalry and less on partnership. It is clear that there were at least some steps forward on the investment talks – at least enough to keep some limited hope alive that a deal by the end of the year is not impossible. That isn’t enough to change the fundamental trajectory for the relationship but since almost every other recent Sino-European interaction had seen relations actively worsen, even slowing down the recent slide is progress of a sort.“
Peter Chase, Senior Fellow - Brussels
“This week’s EU-China Leader’s Meeting again underscores that the EU can stand firm with China, even as it refuses to kowtow to Washington’s belligerence toward Beijing. As at the EU-China Summit in June, the Chinese pushed hard for a new joint “strategy” for bilateral relations to succeed the one adopted in 2013. But the EU rejected this and issued a “normal” joint summit statement. This was in part because the Chinese remain unwilling to accept some of the basic principles of non-discrimination and reciprocity in a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, but more importantly because of concerns about China’s actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea.”
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The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.