EU leaders meet China’s Xi for summit with high stakes but low expectations


European leaders met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Thursday for talks dominated by divisions between the bloc and its largest economic partner over everything from trade to the war in Ukraine.

China and the EU have ramped up diplomatic engagement this year in an attempt to steer post-pandemic recovery and repair damaged ties, with a number of its commissioners visiting Beijing to restart high-level dialogue.

China’s state news agency Xinhua reported Thursday morning that President Xi had kicked off talks with EU chiefs Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen in the capital.

The bloc says it hopes Thursday’s meetings between the EU leaders and Beijing’s top brass  —  their first in person in more than four years  —  will provide a chance to discuss areas of common interest such as climate change and health.

But they will also address more touchy topics, from human rights and Beijing’s continued ties with Russia despite its war in Ukraine to the yawning trade gap between the two powers.

Von der Leyen warned this week that the bloc would “not tolerate” that imbalance indefinitely.

“We have tools to protect our market,” she told AFP.

Beijing hit back on Wednesday, saying that the bloc’s efforts to curb exports of sensitive tech to China while balancing trade didn’t “make sense”.

European officials have said repeatedly this year they aim to “derisk” their economic ties to China after the war in Ukraine exposed the continent’s energy dependence on Russia.

‘Zero trust’

Beijing’s goal this week will be to “hinder or delay derisking at a minimum cost”, Grzegorz Stec, an analyst at China-focused think tank MERICS, told a media briefing Wednesday.

Beijing will attempt to “project the image of a responsible global actor and to reassure European actors about the direction of the Chinese economy”, Stec said.

But on the eve of the summit, news broke that Italy had withdrawn from China’s vast Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has long been opposed to Italy’s participation in an initiative viewed by many as an attempt by Beijing to buy political influence  —  and whose economic benefits to Rome were limited.

Also on the agenda at the summit will be the fighting between Israel and Hamas  —  as well as Russia’s war in Ukraine.

China, which has not condemned Moscow’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, welcomed Russian leader Vladimir Putin to Beijing in October, with President Xi hailing their “deep friendship”.

Such camaraderie is unlikely in Thursday’s talks with EU leaders, who one analyst said had “zero trust” in Beijing.

“Both sides are unlikely to get what they want from the other side,” Nicholas Bequelin, a senior fellow at Yale’s Paul Tsai China Center, told AFP.

Few offramps 

Beijing has said the meeting will “play an important role in building on the past and ushering in the future”.

“China and Europe are partners, not rivals, and their common interests far outweigh their differences,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said this week.

Von der Leyen and Michel’s schedule in the Chinese capital Thursday will be tight.

The EU chiefs’ meeting with Xi will be followed by a working lunch.

They will then hold talks with Premier Li Qiang before attending an official dinner and a news conference in the evening.

The Europeans have said they will use the talks to urge Beijing to use its ties with Moscow to push it to end its war against Ukraine, an issue that EU Commissioner for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis warned this year was “affecting the country’s image”.

While Beijing has stopped short of providing military aid to Moscow, it has deepened economic ties as Western powers seek to isolate Russia.

War in the Middle East and tensions over self-ruled Taiwan will also feature prominently in the talks, the bloc has said.

And as world leaders meet in Dubai to hash out the future of the planet, Brussels will urge China  —  the world’s biggest producer of polluting greenhouse gases  —  to do more to bring emissions down.

Another touchy topic is the automotive sector, where Brussels accuses Beijing’s subsidies for domestic firms of undercutting foreign competitors.

Von der Leyen announced an official probe into the subsidies in September, a move Beijing swiftly condemned.

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