Picture: 123RF/EVERYTHINGPOSSIBLE
Picture: 123RF/EVERYTHINGPOSSIBLE

Brussels — The EU and China have indicated they could clinch an agreement within days to open the Chinese market further to foreign investors in what would be an economic and political victory for both sides.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Tuesday that progress had been made on the accord. On Monday, EU ambassadors urged the European Commission to complete negotiations soon, according to an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks are confidential. Another official said the commission could announce a draft deal imminently.

“Thanks to efforts from both sides the talks have been continuously making major achievements recently,” Wang said in Beijing. “We hope the deal can be achieved at an early date, which will provide a sound framework for future trade and bring benefit to people on both sides”

A successful conclusion of talks that began in 2013 on an EU-China investment accord would be a salvo against the “America First” challenge to the multilateral order by outgoing US President Donald Trump.

For the EU, the deal would expand access to the Chinese market for foreign investors in industries ranging from cars to biotechnology. Furthermore, the pact would tackle underlying Chinese policies deemed by Europe and the US to be market-distorting: industrial subsidies, state control of enterprises and forced technology transfers.

Free-trade accord

For China, the agreement promises to bolster the country’s claim to be a mainstream geopolitical force and may limit risks resulting from a tougher EU stance on Chinese investments in Europe. It also would strengthen Beijing’s long-standing call for the start of negotiations on a free-trade accord with the EU, which has insisted such a move depended on an investment deal being reached first.

The expected achievement highlights global cross-currents after Trump shook the post-war system over the past four years by sidelining the World Trade Organization, starting a tariff war against China and hitting or threatening US allies in Europe with controversial import duties.

EU-China relations themselves have been strained this year. A recent Chinese law curbing Hong Kong’s autonomy has sparked sharp criticism across Europe, while the EU has accused Beijing of spreading disinformation about the coronavirus and targeted China-based operators with the bloc’s first sanctions over cyber attacks.

While the EU and China pledged in April 2019 to strike an investment accord by the end of 2020, the European side spent recent months downplaying the prospect of a deal this year on the grounds the Chinese government needed to make more concessions.

Through all the ups and downs, the EU has criticised Trump’s confrontational tactics towards China and urged western engagement with Beijing on everything from fighting climate change to overcoming the pandemic.

The bloc helped prod the Chinese government three months ago to commit to a more ambitious climate-protection goal and, when it came to the investment-pact talks, the EU ended up saying progress was made across the board.

The planned deal also signals the EU’s determination to assert itself and focus on economic opportunities in Asia even while reaching out to US president-elect Joe Biden to revive transatlantic co-operation. China ranked as the EU’s second-largest trading partner last year (behind the US), with two-way goods commerce valued at more than €1bn a day.

Snub

The new US administration may not view the EU-China accord favourably, according to Frank Lavin, a former US undersecretary of commerce for international trade, who urged Brussels to consult with Biden’s team to better co-ordinate interactions with China.

“There might be some in Washington who view this as a bit of a gratuitous snub,” Lavin said on Tuesday. “I don’t think it’s helpful in the transatlantic relationship and I don’t think it’s helpful in trying to craft some kind of interaction with China that’s a win-win. I think we want to be in a position where both Washington and Brussels are looking to co-ordinate their approach to China.”

The final parts of the investment accord have been put into place in recent weeks in the shadow of higher-profile EU negotiations with the UK on a post-Brexit trade agreement and of a hard-fought deal among member countries on a new European budget and pandemic-recovery fund.

While the Brussels-based commission has negotiated the investment pact for the EU, the imminent breakthrough marks another result for Germany during the country’s six-month presidency of the bloc ending December 31. Berlin has long championed the goal, stressing the importance of more balanced and deeper European economic ties to China.

Bloomberg

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