China Power

China-EU Summit Reveals a Fundamental Disconnect

Recent Features

China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

China-EU Summit Reveals a Fundamental Disconnect

The EU sees a relationship in dire need of an overhaul. China thinks everything is just fine.

China-EU Summit Reveals a Fundamental Disconnect

From left: European Council President Charles Michel, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meet in Beijing ahead of the China-EU Summit on Dec. 7, 2023.

Credit: European Council

On December 7, European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen attended the China-EU summit in Beijing. It was the first in-person version of the annual summit since 2019, due to the intervention of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both Michel and von der Leyen have visited China separately, however (Michel in November 2022 and von der Leyen in April 2023).

In a post-summit press conference, von der Leyen described the meeting as a “summit of choices,” explaining, “It was an opportunity to explain clearly our concerns and our expectations to the Chinese leadership and of course to also seek progress in key areas of our bilateral relationship.”

While the summit proper was chaired by Michel, von der Leyen, and Chinese Premier Li Qiang, the European leaders also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He gave a rosy take on the relationship, according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s summary. “Since the end of last year, the China-EU relations have shown a sound momentum of consolidation and growth,” the spokesperson paraphrased Xi as saying. The Chinese leader added that “China and the EU are two major forces advancing multipolarity, two major markets in support of globalization, and two major civilizations championing diversity.” China has long envisioned the EU as an independent pole in international relations, with the not-so-subtle subtext being a desired split between Europe and the United States.

Xi also told the EU leaders that “we should not regard each other as rivals just because we have different systems, reduce cooperation just because there is competition, or engage in confrontation just because we have differences.” He struck a similar tone, seeking to downplay areas of friction, during his recent meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden.

In particular, Beijing is urgently pushing to have Europe break ranks with the United States on sanctions designed to restrict the growth of China’s tech industry. As Xi put it, China “is willing to regard the EU as a key partner in economic and trade cooperation, a priority partner in scientific and technological cooperation, and a reliable partner in industrial and supply chain cooperation, in pursuit of mutual benefit and common development.”

The EU leaders, however, struck a far more cautious tone. They particularly voiced dissatisfaction with continued restrictions on European companies operating in China. Both Michel and von der Leyen repeated EU concerns about the “unbalanced” trade relationship with China, with von der Leyen warning, “Politically, European leaders will not be able to tolerate that our industrial base is undermined by unfair competition.”

“The EU-China relationship is one that matters. But we need to make our trade and economic relations more balanced, reciprocal, and mutually beneficial,” Michel declared. “…Today should be a first step.” But with no commitments from China made during the summit, there’s not much of a “first step” to talk about.

That said, von der Leyen also reiterated the EU formulation that “Europe does not want to decouple from China… What we want is de-risking.” To make clear the distinction, she pointed to the example of Russia, which has been shut out of the EU market since its invasion of Ukraine: “We have seen a decoupling of Europe from Russia, for good reasons. We do not want a decoupling from China.”

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson noted the EU assurances on not pursuing decoupling, but ignored the lengthy discussion on de-risking.

The biggest disconnect was, unsurprisingly on Ukraine, which von der Leyen reiterated is a “serious threat to European security.” The EU has been vocal about denouncing the Russian invasion, while China has refused to criticize Russia and even allegedly provided military equipment to its long-standing partner (something Beijing denies). While the Chinese readout barely mentioned Ukraine, the EU one made clear that it was a major topic of discussion.

“The EU reiterated that, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, China has a special responsibility in upholding the U.N. Charter’s core principles, including territorial integrity and sovereignty,” the European Council’s readout of the summit said. “The EU called on China to use its influence on Russia to stop its war of aggression and strongly encouraged China to engage on Ukraine’s Peace Formula. The EU underlined the importance of China continuing to refrain from supplying lethal weapons to Russia.”

And, of course, China’s spokesperson made no mention of the fact that the “EU reiterated its deep concerns about the human rights situation in China, notably systemic human rights violations in Xinjiang and Tibet, forced labor, the treatment of human rights defenders and persons belonging to minorities, as well as the continued erosion of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong…” The EU leaders also raised concerns about flashpoints like Taiwan and the South China Sea, reiterating that “we are opposed to any unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force or coercion.”

There is some room for common interests, with both sides interested in cooperation on artificial intelligence risks, climate change, and people-to-people exchanges. It’s not a coincidence that these are the same areas where the United States and China are attempting to push forward their cooperation after the Biden-Xi summit. Also, like the Biden-Xi summit, there were no major deliverables, other than promises to keep talking.

All in all, even more so than the China-U.S. summit in November, the Chinese and European readouts show a fundamental disconnect. The EU leaders see a relationship that is deeply unfair and unbalanced, while China persists in pretending all is well. China-U.S. relations have gotten so bad that Beijing can no longer delude itself that a return to “business as usual” is possible. Apparently, China has not yet accepted that its relationship with Europe is forever changed.

As Exhibit A of this willful denialism on Beijing’s part, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson re-interpreted the EU demand for a “reciprocal” relationship into a bland statement that “EU-China cooperation is reciprocal and equal-footed.” That is exactly the opposite of what Michel and von der Leyen said in their press conference. One wonders if Xi actually got the message and is just pretending he didn’t.