A set of high profile European visits by top Chinese diplomats has drawn attention to the China-EU relationship in recent weeks. Yang Jiechi, director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China, is touring Spain and Greece (in addition to Myanmar) from September 1 to 4. This immediately follows a week-long trip to Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, France, and Germany by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. With ongoing investment treaty negotiations and plans for President Xi Jinping to attend a video summit with high-profile EU leaders in mid September, China may be looking to pursue closer ties with the European continent amid rising tensions with the United States.
On August 30, French newspaper Les Echos reported that Wang, speaking to a French audience, stated that he wished to see an investment deal with the EU completed before the end of the year. Brussels and Beijing have been engaged in investment negotiations since 2013. For the EU side, negotiations are reportedly centred around increasing Chinese market access for European firms, creating additional transparency with respect to Chinese state-owned enterprises/government subsidies, and the promotion of sustainable development. Observers, however, saw an impasse in negotiations over the summer months. Wendy Wu of the South China Morning Post, reported in late July that “China has signalled that solid commitments will not come easy, while on the other, Brussels is refusing to compromise on the substance of the deal.” Despite subsequent talks and a pledge from Chinese Vice Premier Liu He that both sides would “ramp up” negotiations, there is still immense uncertainty surrounding the timeline of a potential agreement.
A planned September 14 video-summit is expected to take a trade and investment focus, according to South China Morning Post sources. The summit, which replaces a previously cancelled in-person Leipzig, Germany summit, will be attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and the presidents of the European Council and European Commission. With high-level attention now directed squarely at the investment agreement, there may be room for tangible progress.
There is still palpable tension on both sides, however. European officials, including senior EU diplomat Josep Borrell, are not backing away from actively criticizing China, and many European countries have been critical of recent developments in Hong Kong. Chinese media has similarly stated that France and Germany “tried to interfere in China’s Hong Kong affairs.” But with rising tensions underscoring its relationship with the United States, it is clearly beneficial for China to expand economic ties with Europe. The September 14 talks should provide a view of European receptiveness to this effort and set the tone for future negotiations.