The 23rd EU-China summit was held on Monday, September 14. Previously, it was planned to be hosted by Leipzig, where, according to its facilitating agents, the door was to be opened to an investment agreement that would further connect the two economic spaces and would probably become the first step towards a free trade pact. But the coronavirus broke out and upset the applecart of world politics, forcing the Europeans to forget about their ambitions.
Before the pandemic, Leipzig was, by the way, to witness Europe for the first time demonstrate its unity to increasingly strong China. But this was not to be. Yes, Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the current President of the EU Council, President of the Council of Europe Charles Michel and head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen held a joint video conference on Monday, but there were no face-to-face talks, just like at the previous EU-China summit in June this year.
The central focus of the current summit was trade, investment, international cooperation, human rights and climate change. Before the talks, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell said the following: "China is getting more powerful and assertive and its rise is impressive and triggers respect, but also many questions and fears." And by now there are quite a number of issues between the European Union and China.
Negative political and economic factors have been accumulating throughout the recent years, but the key impetus was generated by the past months' events. Among them are the heavy-handed action of the Chinese authorities in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, as well as in the South China Sea, where Beijing, according to the West, is expanding its territorial presence in violation of international law. The coronavirus has only turned up the pressure, as many in Europe believe that the Chinese authorities are still blinding the country's real state of affairs over COVID-19.
The recent visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to a number of EU countries clearly demonstrated that relations between the European Union and China have significantly deteriorated in these latter months. And while in Italy and France he was extended a more or less hearty welcome, in Norway and the Netherlands the Chinese guest got a tepid reception. And even Germany, once the most ardent supporter of EU cooperation with China, failed to accord the distinguished guest from China the reception he apparently expected: the schedule of his visit did not even include a meeting with Angela Merkel. Besides, the last few weeks saw China's relations with Spain, the Czech Republic and Greece worsen noticeably for various reasons. In short, Beijing is now facing pressure not only from Washington, but from most EU countries either.
At that, the countries of Europe were put in the crosshairs between the United States and China. And they seem to be tilting toward Washington after all. This is evidenced by the increasingly harsh and open criticism of Beijing. In particular, the EU-China June video summit's final communiqué read that the EU did not share China's values, political principles and approach to multilateral cooperation. The Chinese media simply ignored this clause of the joint statement, which Brussels was dead against.
It should be noted that the Chinese leadership is trying to downplay the discord with Europe. "We consider the EU as a partner, despite differences of opinion," China's Ambassador to the European Union Zhang Ming said. According to him, China aims to approve the investment agreement by the end of the year. "With Beijing facing resistance throughout the world, an investment agreement would send an important message: China will remain a partner of the EU," chief economist and China expert at the Berlin-based Merics think tank Max Zenglein stated. However, the Europeans have little faith in this, as proved by the latest survey commissioned by the European External Action Service (EEAS). It revealed that 62% of Europeans have a negative attitude towards China.
Troubled relations between the EU and China will apparently keep developing, at least until the November presidential election in the United States. With Donald Trump re-elected, they are unlikely to die down, since Washington will further apply pressure to Beijing and Brussels. However, if the EU gambles on economic recovery, the countries of the union, regardless of the United States, will have to cooperate with Beijing, as China is once again becoming the engine of global development. If Joe Biden, who is persistently credited with sympathizing with the PRC, wins the election, we can expect the elimination of certain contradictions between Brussels and Beijing. In the meantime, these contradictions cling.
The recently accomplished EU-China summit has also failed to conciliate them. Following the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "Overall, cooperation with China must be based on certain principles - reciprocity, fair competition. We are different social systems, but while we are committed to multilateralism, it must be rules-based." At that, she noted that the EU and China are not on the same page regarding all the issues. This concerns the situation in Hong Kong and respect for minority rights. Nevertheless, according to her, there was a good, honest, open exchange of views, which should be continued.
But it is still unclear when is this going to happen. A full-scale EU-China summit was planned to be held before the end of 2020. But as Angela Merkel told reporters on Monday, a face-to-face EU-China summit is unlikely this year over the coronavirus pandemic. "This will most likely happen after the German presidency, and, possibly, the meeting will take place in Brussels," the German Chancellor summed up.