China and EU to hold talks on Tuesday as sanctions, Aukus and Lithuania throw up complications

·3-min read

Top diplomats from the European Union and China will hold official talks on Tuesday, sources in Brussels and Beijing said, as swirling geopolitical headwinds continue to gather pace.

The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell is expected to lead the talks, along with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi by video link, sources said. European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans will meet Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng.

The 11th “strategic dialogue” between the two powers comes at a delicate moment.

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Certain quarters of the EU – especially France – are reeling after being omitted from the nascent Aukus security pact between Australia, Britain and the United States signed last week and designed to act as a counterbalance to China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific.

It also comes on the heels of the German federal election, which will eventually, once the coalition government is established, lead to the departure of Angela Merkel, who has been the strongest sponsor of close EU-China ties.

The dialogue is part of annual exchanges between Beijing and Brussels ahead of their annual leadership summit. The EU will discuss China issues in early October, including when and how the EU side wants to meet leaders in Beijing this year.

At the last such summit, held in June last year, the powers talked about concluding a bilateral investment deal, which was then finalised before being binned by the European Parliament over sanctions relating to alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

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They discussed ways to cooperate in Afghanistan over which Borrell has publicly voiced concerns that China might fill the void left by Western powers, especially the US.

But relations have taken a nosedive in the intervening period. A sustained backlash against China by member states and European parliamentarians helped lead to sanctions in March, followed by the freezing of the investment pact in May.

At the subsequent G7 meeting in England, the EU joined other allies in delivering the strongest rebuke of China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown more than 30 years ago.

The aggression of the Biden administration’s China policy and its perceived slight against Europe over the Afghanistan withdrawal and the Aukus affair have thrust the EU’s focus on strategic autonomy – whereby it seeks a foreign policy independent from the US, China and other powers – into the spotlight.

Bilateral tensions also escalated when Brussels expressed support for its member Lithuania, which is in the middle of a diplomatic row with China over its relations with Taiwan.

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Wang and Borrell talked twice in July this year when Wang said both sides should work together to issue “positive signals” to boost confidence on bilateral relations and both agreed to continue their dialogue.

Wang said China and the EU had no fundamental conflicts of interest or geopolitical conflicts, calling for cooperation in pandemic control, climate change and infrastructure connection.

Borrell also said the EU would not take part in a new cold war, nor did it hope to confront China, according to a statement by the Chinese foreign ministry in July.

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