European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called on Thursday to address “imbalances and differences” between the European Union and China, during their first face-to-face summit in more than four years.
“China is the EU’s most important trading partner,” recalled Ursula von der Leyen, “but there are clearly imbalances and disputes that we must address.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping called for “to respond together to global challenges and work together to promote stability and prosperity in the world”, during a meeting with Mrs von der Leyen and the President of the European Council Charles Michel in Diaoyutai , the Chinese government’s state villa in Beijing.
“China and the EU should be partners in mutually beneficial cooperation,” he added, stressing the importance of “political trust” between the two partners.
For his part, Charles Michel assured that the EU wanted “a stable and mutually profitable relationship with China”.
But “very naturally, today we will promote our European values, including human rights and democracy,” he assured.
The summit – the first face-to-face in more than four years – comes at a time of resumption of diplomatic exchanges between Brussels and Beijing, at the end of the Covid-19 pandemic which had isolated China from the rest of the world.
For several months, several European commissioners have traveled to the country to renew dialogue in person.
“Protect our market”
But there are still many areas of division between the EU and its largest economic partner, whether it is the large trade deficit or the war in Ukraine, two subjects which should be at the heart of discussions on Thursday.
Photo released by the press service of the European Council, December 7, 2023, showing Chinese President Xi Jinping (d) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during an EU-China summit, in Beijing / Dario Pignatelli / Service press release of the European Council/AFP
“European leaders will not tolerate an imbalance in trade over the long term,” Ms von der Leyen warned on Tuesday in an interview in Brussels with AFP.
“We have tools to protect our market,” she stressed, while expressing her preference for “negotiated solutions”.
The European Union’s trade deficit with China has doubled in two years to reach a record figure of 390 billion euros in 2022, according to Ms. Von der Leyen.
Beijing responded on Wednesday that the European Union’s export policy towards China, accompanied by restrictions on the export of high-tech products, made “no sense”.
China will try during this summit to “protect its image as a global player and to reassure European players about the direction the Chinese economy is taking,” said Grzegorz Stec, an analyst at the China think tank Merics.
The “New Silk Roads” / Laurence CHU / AFP/Archives
On the eve of the EU-China summit, a source within Giorgia Meloni’s government told AFP that Italy was withdrawing from the agreement with China on the New Silk Roads.
Italian head of government Giorgia Meloni had already declared before coming to power at the end of 2022 that her country’s adherence to Beijing’s massive investment program – described by many as a Trojan horse intended to obtain political influence – was a “serious error”.
“No trust at all”
The war between Israel and Hamas and the Russian offensive in Ukraine will also be on the agenda.
Beijing has regularly been criticized by the West on the Ukrainian issue.
Because if China calls for respect for the territorial integrity of all countries – including Ukraine – it has never publicly condemned Moscow.
In October, Vladimir Putin was also welcomed in Beijing by Mr. Xi who praised their “deep friendship”.
The EU-China summit will probably be different, anticipates analyst Nicholas Bequelin, who notes that the European Union has “no confidence” in Beijing.
“It is unlikely that both parties will get what they want from the other,” underlines this expert from the Paul Tsai China Center, a think tank.
“China and Europe are partners, not rivals, and their common interests far outweigh their differences,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin insisted this week.
Tensions around the autonomous island of Taiwan will also be at the heart of the discussions.
Against the backdrop of negotiations on climate change in Dubai for COP28, European leaders also intend to push China, the world’s leading producer of greenhouse gases, to redouble its efforts for the climate.
Finally, European leaders will probably discuss the issue of electric cars produced in China, targeted by an investigation by the European Commission into subsidies deemed illegal.