By RFE RL
By Reid Standish
(RFE/RL) — The EU’s top leaders will meet in China with President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Qiang for their first in-person summit since 2019 amid rising geopolitical and economic tensions between Beijing and Brussels.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel will hold talks with Chinese leaders in Beijing on December 7 during a two-day visit that will tackle several contentious issues that have strained ties between the bloc and China, including trade disputes and Beijing’s support for Russia amid its war in Ukraine.
The summit comes amid deepening geopolitical crises in Ukraine and the Middle East and is the first in-person gathering for leaders since Brussels adopted a more assertive stance toward Beijing and an economic slowdown raised questions about China’s future.
An EU official familiar with the summit told RFE/RL that Brussels is looking for “practical dialogue” on improving market access for European companies in China and will discuss the 27-country bloc’s decision to launch a probe into Chinese subsidies for electric vehicles in a bid to ward off a flood of cheaper imports.
The official said EU leaders will also focus on issues related to Beijing’s relationship with Russia and the war in Ukraine, such as sanctions circumvention by Chinese firms; Beijing’s involvement in the arms trade between Russia and North Korea; urging Beijing to return to talks within Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s peace formula for ending the war; and pushing China to pressure Moscow to participate in more prisoner exchanges and to stop the forced relocation of Ukrainian children to Russia.
“These are not ideological things,” the official said. “Here [Beijing] doesn’t need to be political, just helpful.”
Despite the full agenda, EU representatives say expectations are low heading into the summit and that Brussels is looking for “constructive and practical” discussions. Another EU official said the bloc does not expect the summit to have any particular “deliverable,” but that it’s focused on having a far-reaching discussion “on the nature of our bilateral relationship.”
In the lead-up to the meeting, Chinese officials have said Beijing and Brussels are “not rivals,” despite key differences on the global stage.
“China and the EU [do not have] completely the same point of view on international and regional issues, and only by adhering to communication and coordination can we play a constructive role in maintaining world peace and stability and addressing global challenges,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on December 4, state news agency Xinhua reported.
The summit follows a series of high-level meetings this year between EU and Chinese leaders, such as EU trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis visiting China in September and Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, holding meetings there in October.
The backdrop for those discussions has been measures taken by Brussels to improve its economic security and lessen its dependence on China, policies championed by von der Leyen during her term in office.
Earlier this year, she set out a new strategy of “de-risking” from China by reducing Brussels’s dependency in critical sectors and supplies, while also stressing it won’t decouple from the Chinese economy. The EU is also looking to maintain cooperation on issues like combating climate change.
During his September trip to Beijing, Dombrovskis agreed with his Chinese counterparts to set up dispute-settlement mechanisms — though Brussels launched a probe in early October into whether to impose punitive tariffs on cheaper Chinese electric-vehicle imports to protect EU producers.
The European Commission is expected to also launch a similar investigation into Chinese steelmakers. The probe drew a strong reaction from Beijing, which accused the EU of protectionist measures.
Unpacking that dispute will factor into the December 7-8 talks in Beijing and analysts are closely watching how China’s economic slowdown will also affect trade discussions at the summit. The meeting is the first gathering between EU and Chinese leaders since forecasts suggested the Chinese economy will only grow around 5 percent in 2024 and be hit with a rising debt that has already shaken investor confidence.
Noah Barkin, a senior adviser at the Rhodium Group and visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, told RFE/RL that this may translate into the EU feeling it has more leverage with Beijing than it has in the past.
He adds, however, that Brussels is worried that Beijing “will try to export its way out of its current malaise by selling underpriced green tech products on the European market,” which would undercut “home-grown industries that are several years behind Chinese competitors.”
Plamen Tonchev, head of the Asia unit at the Athens-based Institute of International Economic Relations, said the EU single market holds great appeal for China amid its slowdown.
“Given the weak domestic consumption in the country, exports remain one of the key drivers of growth of the Chinese economy,” he told RFE/RL. “This explains why Beijing’s so jittery about the EU’s ‘de-risking’ policy, which the Chinese leadership views as being tantamount to decoupling.”
China And The Ukraine War
Beyond trade and investment, EU and Chinese leaders will also be looking to discuss a slew of issues such as relations with Taiwan, security in the Indo-Pacific, and human rights issues inside China.
But EU officials say von der Leyen and Michel plan to devote a large portion of their face time with Xi to raising the role of certain Chinese firms in getting around the bloc’s Russia sanctions by supplying Moscow’s war effort with nonlethal but militarily useful dual-use goods, such as vehicles, tractor parts, microchips, and recreational drones.
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported that Brussels plans to ask Xi to act against 13 Chinese companies that have been identified in skirting sanctions and helping Russia. If a clear commitment from the Chinese leader is not given, then the EU may look to add the firms to its 12th sanctions list, which it is currently looking to approve. An EU official confirmed this approach to RFE/RL.
It is unclear, however, how Brussels will be able to act upon this.
A draft version of the EU’s 12th sanctions package seen by RFE/RL in November includes no new Chinese companies. Brussels originally included seven Chinese firms in its 11th sanctions package but removed four before passing it in June after lobbying by Chinese officials and some more China-friendly members of the bloc, such as Hungary.
China’s role supporting Russia following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been a point of contention for Brussels since February 2022. While Beijing has stopped short of formal military aid to Moscow, it has continued to trade with Russia and supply it with dual-use civilian equipment that experts say has proved vital for the Kremlin war machine.
Ukraine’s security service allegedly blew up railway connections linking Russia to China in Russia’s Far East on November 30 as part of a move to cripple cross-border trade, Ukrainian officials confirmed to multiple Western news outlets.
With these tensions in mind, Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says Beijing is looking to walk a tightrope at the summit between improving ties with Brussels while avoiding major concessions.
“Tactical adjustments on trade and diplomacy are possible, but real shifts in strategy unlikely,” she said.
- Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.