EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (left) and Chinese premier Li Keqiang (right) at the 21st EU-China Summit on April 9 2019. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/THIERRY MONASSE
EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (left) and Chinese premier Li Keqiang (right) at the 21st EU-China Summit on April 9 2019. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/THIERRY MONASSE

Brussels — On Tuesday, China said it will push further to open its economy and deepen ties with the EU, which has grown increasingly wary of Beijing’s influence in Europe.

EU council president Donald Tusk hailed Beijing’s new commitments at the EU-China summit in Brussels as a “breakthrough” with both sides committed to globalisation and pursuing international rules.

The annual meeting brings together China’s number two leader and the EU’s top officials and serves as a litmus test of the state of ties between Europe and the Asian giant. This year’s meeting comes at a sensitive time, a month after the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, branded Beijing “a systemic rival” in a special 10-point report that stressed China’s unwillingness to play fair on trade.

It also lands amid big questions over Huawei, the Chinese tech giant that Washington wants the EU to ban due to the firm’s alleged ties to Chinese state security.

“On the basis of mutual respect and equality, we had intense discussions and reached a substantive joint statement,” China’s prime minister Li Keqiang said after the talks. “It sets in clear terms both the direction and concrete goals for both sides.”

The joint declaration was only agreed after frantic, last-minute haggling, but it narrowly avoids the diplomatic dust-up seen two years ago when China refused to sign on to a statement due to a spat over trade.

In Tuesday’s seven-page document that spans security, diplomacy and trade issues, both sides commit to “broader and more facilitated, non-discriminatory market access”, in wording the Europeans saw as a concession from the Chinese on freeing their economy.

The EU is increasingly unhappy that markets in Europe are wide open to Chinese companies, while the equivalent is not the case in China. “We insist that European firms in China enjoy the same rights as Chinese firms in Europe,” European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker told a conference just minutes before also meeting with Li.

The declaration also says China and the EU will press on with efforts to reform at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), including on strengthening rules against state subsidies for industry, a key concern of China critics.

“This is a breakthrough. For the first time, China has agreed to engage with Europe on this key WTO reform,” Tusk said after the talks, adding that both sides will discuss progress on the issue at the next summit.

‘Belt and Road’ concerns 

The annual meeting comes as Brussels is trying to beef up its approach to the Asian giant on trade matters and security. A major concern is China’s ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), a massive network of transport and trade links stretching from Asia to Europe.

EU powers, such as France and Germany, are growing ever more uneasy with the project after populist-led Italy joined the scheme, becoming the first G7 member to do so. Italy’s move ran against the commission’s 10-point plan proposing a more assertive relationship with Beijing.

It also underlined Europe’s struggles to maintain unity among its 28 members when it comes to China, allowing the superpower to pursue one-on-one deals, especially with countries hungry for investment such as Italy, Greece and eastern Europe.

After Brussels, Li is heading to Croatia for a so-called 16+1 summit that offers a chance for Europe’s former communist countries to meet alone with Beijing, in a gathering that has ruffled feathers in the rest of Europe.

But more powerful EU states also go out on their own with China. Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted President Xi Jinping for a summit, though he also invited German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the EU’s Juncker for one leg of the meeting.

In 2018, China was the EU’s largest importer and the second largest destination for European exports. The Chinese trade balance is largely in surplus with the bloc at €184bn, according to Commission figures.