China, Germany, EU leaders meet 'tone-setter' for ties

By Zhao Yusha Source: Global Times Published: 2020/9/9 23:23:40

Areas on deeper cooperation, differences likely to be raised: experts

Security members wearing face masks are seen at the main train station in Frankfurt, Germany, on Aug. 29, 2020. Photo: Xinhua

Chinese President Xi Jinping's scheduled video conference with the top leaders of Germany and the EU, after bilateral ties were warmed up by senior Chinese diplomats' visits to Europe weeks ago, is likely to be the "tone-setter" for a deeper and more comprehensive relations,  observers said, noting such cooperation safeguards multilateralism, as the world tries to recover from COVID-19, and global politics is disrupted by rising US hegemony.

Observers said the previous two high-profile Chinese diplomatic visits to Europe laid the foundation for post-pandemic China-EU relations. The video meeting between higher-level officials will address the areas for deeper cooperation as well as areas with gaps to be bridged between China and the EU, whose ties have been hailed as the ideal model amid a complicated global sphere, but also challenged by fundamental disagreements. 

Xi will attend a China-Germany-European Union (EU) leaders' meeting via video link on Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying announced Wednesday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President of the European Council Charles Michel and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen will attend the meeting, Hua said.

This year is a special year for China and the EU, as it marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. Germany had planned an important meeting for leaders of China and the bloc, but the original plan was disrupted by the COVID-19, Cui Hongjian, director of EU Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times. 

He noted that Germany's push to resume high-level talks shows the desire of Germany, and the EU to talk to China, and the importance they attach to Beijing.

The two are likely to reach a consensus on the trade of agricultural products and intellectual property, experts said, noting that negotiations on the EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement will also likely be discussed during the meeting.

Observers noted that Germany, which serves as the rotating president of the EU Council, standing out in China-EU negotiation, is a procedure move; but under the circumstance that the status of the rotating presidency has declined in recent years, Berlin's involvement in talks between Beijing and Brussels carries special meaning.

Germany's half-year rotating presidency began on July 1 when the EU faced two major problems: its future in the post-pandemic era, and its role in COVID-19 and rising unilateralism, said Shi Mingde, a former Chinese ambassador to Germany. 

He further explained that Germany has three major tasks: fight the virus, push forward integration within the bloc, and form a united policy toward China. "So, Germany's stance is of great significance in deciding the future of the bloc's relations with China,"  Shi said. 

Relations between China, Germany and the EU have already been warmed up by Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi's week-long visit to five European countries, followed by Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, who visited Spain and Greece last week. 

Now that ties between Beijing and Washington are suffering from what Shi described as a "most severe situation" since diplomatic relations were established, he said the EU is in the US' sights to contain China. 

"This power struggle has put the bloc in an awkward position, but I believe the EU will try not to provoke either side," Shi said. 

China's EU watchers noted that the bloc's decision not to choose between the world's two biggest economies is not only for diplomatic reasons, which the EU has long honored, but also for pragmatic reasons.

The economic foundation between Washington and Brussels has been shaken ever since US President Donald Trump put forward his "America First" policy. The US withdrawal from international organizations has also gone against multilateralism, which the EU cherishes.  

Washington's moves have also hurt the EU economically, which impaired the block's willingness to cooperate with the US, said Sun Keqin, a research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, citing the Nord Stream gas pipeline as an example.

He said that the EU is closely watching the US presidential election. "The bloc is likely to lean more to China if Trump is reelected, as they believe they will be squeezed out of US protectionism."

In contrast, China and the EU support multilateralism, Shi said.  For example, he said trade between Beijing and Berlin has increased significantly and been balanced, which is ideal to win-win cooperation. 

During the pandemic, the global auto industry has taken a heavy blow. However, German car giants increased their sales in China, with Mercedes-Benz seeing a 21.6 percent increase in the second quarter compared with the same period last year, even as its sales in Europe dropped by 31.5 percent during the first half of the year. 

In May, a chartered flight with German businessmen became the first to China since the outbreak, which served as an example of the profound ties and dependence on each other.

Before Wang's trip to Germany, the last stop of his week-long European visit, Merkel said that she wanted to continue the conversation with China and set an example for multilateralism.

Merkel said China and Germany have many ways to work closer together, and she hopes the two sides will make further progress on the EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement. 

Apart from economic cooperation, China's cooperation with the EU was also strengthened by the fight against the virus, observers said.  Xi announced at a ceremony on Tuesday that China has sent 34 medical teams to 32 countries, and provided assistance to 150 countries to fight coronavirus, many of which went to EU countries, such as Italy and Spain. 

Agree to disagree

The video conference between leaders of China, Germany and the EU was announced shortly after Wang and Yang concluded their European trips. Many foreign media reported that Wang's trip was marred after European leaders raised Hong Kong and Xinjiang issues, and claimed Wang was pressured by Germany and France for rebuking Czech Senate Speaker Milos Vystrcil's visit to the island of Taiwan. 

"Those examples show the complications and disputes that riddle relations between China and the EU. We have cooperation, but also have competition, and even antagonism on certain issues," Sun said. He explained that is also why the video conference was arranged, to set the tone for a more comprehensive cooperation. 

Observers also called for deep and frequent communication between the two, which helps "our EU partners know where our bottom line lies. Hong Kong and Xinjiang are our internal affairs, and that a state official's visit to island of Taiwan is intolerable," Sun said. 

But he also noted that room for cooperation is much bigger than confrontation, and spats on issues like Hong Kong won't stand in the way of deeper collaboration.

Those sensitive issues provide an opportunity to explore whether unity on Chinese affairs is possible. This is how - in the view of Germany - the EU can better negotiate with China, George N. Tzogopoulos, director of EU-China Programs and also a senior research fellow at the Center International de Formation Europeenne, told the Global Times.

China and the EU cannot agree on everything, but they can collaborate. The EU's public comments cause understandable frustration to China, but - generally speaking - the EU position on China remains mild, he said.  

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