Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Brussels — China reached out for Europe’s support in its bitter trade war with the US, leaving the EU at risk of getting entangled in a conflict with repercussions around the world.

The EU is caught in a bind as it, too, shares many of Washington’s grievances with Beijing’s trade practices, but is also under a threat of protectionist measures ordered up by US President Donald Trump.

In a rare diplomatic plea, on Friday China called on the EU to take a joint stand against US protectionism as Trump warned that he could slap another $100 (€86bn) of extra tariffs on China’s imports.

"China and the EU ... should take a clear stance against protectionism, jointly preserve the rules-based multilateral trade order, and keep the global economy on a sound and sustainable track," Zhang Ming, the head of the Chinese mission to the EU, said in a statement sent to AFP. "This is a joint responsibility of China and the EU. We must act together to make that happen."

The EU declined to respond directly to the envoy’s invitation, insisting only that trade conflicts should be resolved at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Geneva-based body set up to resolve disputes.

The bloc is "firm in the belief that free and fair trade is one of the most powerful engines for growth, supporting millions of jobs and contributing to prosperity," European Commission spokesman Daniel Rosario said in a response to AFP.

The EU and the US themselves nearly descended into a trade war after Trump threatened to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium imports in March that would, if confirmed, punish European manufacturers. But Trump granted Europe a last-minute exemption, giving EU negotiators until May 1 to come up with a solution to unfair trade policies alleged by the US leader.

The Europeans reject Trump’s allegations, which have mostly centred on Germany’s automotive industry, and prepared a list of countermeasures in case the US reverses course and slaps on the tariffs.

The European Commission, which handles trade for the EU member states, said contacts with the US would continue next week, though French President Emmanuel Macron has angrily said that Europe should refuse to negotiate "with a gun to [its] head". Complicating matters, European leaders are largely in agreement with Trump that China fails to play fairly when it comes to international trade, not only for metals exports, but also market access for European companies and respecting intellectual property.

Many Europeans also rail against cash-flush Chinese tycoons that have snapped up European companies, sports clubs, wineries and airports, all while foreigners are barred from investing in equivalent industries in China.

China ranked 84th globally — behind Saudi Arabia and Ukraine — in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index for 2016, and second to last in an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on the restrictiveness towards foreign investment.

"The problem is the method," a European official told AFP, when asked about Trump’s hardball approach to Beijing. "The US is completely ignoring WTO rules. Until now they at least kept up appearances, but no longer."

Against China, the Europeans have always chosen the soft approach — through lures of investment deals and closer co-operation — said economist Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels.

But this strategy will remain "fruitless, partly because there isn’t any degree of confrontation, there is no bad cop next to the good cop, and we need that", he said. However he added: "While confrontation with China is necessary, Trump’s way of doing it has too much collateral damage and does not deal with the issue in a rational way."