China’s leader put the emphasis on cooperation in talks with his French and German counterparts on Monday, but observers say the effort to counter pressure from the US may not do much to improve ties with Europe.
In the video call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, Xi Jinping discussed the annual EU-China summit, market access, and “opportunities” created by Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and projects in Africa.
There was little in the way of detail or timelines but the stress was on “cooperation” – a word repeated 13 times in the Chinese foreign ministry’s readout from the call.
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It was their first meeting since Group of Seven leaders, including Macron and Merkel, criticised Beijing over a range of issues last month. It also comes at a tense time for EU-China ties after an investment agreement was stalled by the European Parliament amid growing concerns over China’s human rights record. Beijing has dismissed those concerns as based on “wrong information” and called the G7 a “small bloc” that does not rule the world.
After Monday’s video call, China’s foreign ministry said Macron and Merkel had supported the revival of the agreement. Xi also told the two leaders that “any international affairs should be discussed in a reasonably calm manner”, according to the Chinese statement.
In addition, he said “China’s biggest hope is to develop itself and not to replace others” – an apparent response to US efforts to build a coalition of allies to counter Beijing.
Ding Chun, director of the Centre for European Studies at Fudan University, said the meeting was a positive step for the strained relationship.
“The EU’s concerns about China – including China’s role in global governance, human rights issues – have been long-standing … however, at least this shows that the two sides both believe in cooperation,” Ding said. “The current political atmosphere is still bad, but being able to talk about economic cooperation means there’s still some positivity about the [Comprehensive Agreement on Investment] … instead of it being completely set aside.”
Kong Tianping, a senior researcher with the Institute of European Studies at Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the call was significant.
“Despite the US efforts to align with the EU, the most influential EU leaders are still in top leadership talks with China,” Kong said. “Although the US does have common interests with Europe, they are not completely aligned. Europe is not willing to get involved in this new cold war,” he said. “Europe has its own interests, especially commercial interests.”
Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, noted the different emphasis in statements from the three countries after the meeting.
“For President Xi the emphasis seems to have been to argue against a joint G7 stance on China and stress many opportunities for cooperation between Europe and China,” Benner said.
“For president Macron it seems to have been most important to stress [the] independent stance of France and Europe while firmly criticising Beijing on human rights record and stressing demands on market access,” he said. “Merkel stressed that there are possible opportunities for cooperation with Beijing in Africa and on climate change and biodiversity while avoiding any public criticism of Beijing.”
The talks may not have done much to improve China’s relations with Europe, according to Emilian Kavalski, a professor of China-Eurasia relations at the University of Nottingham Ningbo.
He also noted that changes expected in Europe – including Merkel stepping down in September and the French presidential election next year – would be factors in shaping the relationship.
“Merkel and Macron are probably two of the very few leaders in the EU who are still interested in pragmatic relations with China. Yet, Macron is likely to be increasingly distracted by domestic issues, while nearly all the candidates for the German chancellery have been quite vocal both on Beijing’s human rights record and extremely critical of Merkel’s perceived bonhomie with China,” he said. “I doubt that the call was particularly helpful with either moving on the CAI or any of the other hot-button issues in Europe-China relations.”
He added that it was “China’s relations with the other EU member states and the EU as a whole that require significant repair”.
Noah Barkin, the Berlin-based managing editor at Rhodium Group, said other issues were likely to affect ties in the coming months.
“We will see the EU roll out a series of new legislative proposals, including on supply chain due diligence, that risk deepening tensions with China. At the same time, European concerns over Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan are rising,” Barkin said. “It is important that European capitals continue to speak with Beijing, but unless China’s leadership shows a readiness to tone down its rhetoric and take steps in Europe’s direction – for example on issues like forced labour – then the relationship is likely to continue to deteriorate.”
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