China-EU Summit: Outcomes and the Future


The 24th Summit between the European Union (EU) and China took place in Beijing on December 7, 2023. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, engaged in discussions with China’s President, Xi Jinping, followed by interactions with China’s Premier, Li Qiang. This Summit marked a significant occasion for the EU to connect with China, building on intensified bilateral contacts and dialogues. Prior high-level visits and dialogues covering strategic and foreign policy matters, human rights, trade and economy, climate, environment, and digital issues set the stage for the Summit, reflecting the EU’s dedication to constructive engagement with China. The EU emphasized the importance of tangible progress resulting from these discussions. President Charles Michel underscored the significance of the EU-China relationship, advocating for more balanced, reciprocal, and mutually beneficial trade and economic ties. He urged for equal opportunities for companies and emphasized the need for China, as a Permanent Member of the UNSC, to uphold the UN charter, particularly regarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations. President Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged the complexity of the EU-China relationship, emphasizing the joint interest in achieving balanced trade relations. She highlighted the necessity of addressing challenges amid increasing geopolitical tensions worldwide, including the imperative for collective efforts to halt Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine.

In 2022, the economic ties between Europe and China showcased a mutually beneficial relationship, evident in key metrics. Europe played a crucial role as a significant contributor to China’s foreign direct investment, ranking among the top five sources. Conversely, China solidified its position as the third-largest destination for goods exported by the European Union (EU) at 9.0%, and emerged as the principal source for EU goods imports, constituting 20.8%. The economic collaboration was exemplified by escalating investment figures, rising from €5.8 billion in 2009 to €7.1 billion in 2010 just after the global economic crisis of 2008. This economic synergy faced global scrutiny during the 23rd EU-China summit in April 2022, addressing critical issues such as the Ukraine war. Leaders engaged in discussions encompassing bilateral relations, climate change, biodiversity, and health, emphasizing the need for a more balanced trade relationship. The summit also addressed concerns about COVID-19 recovery, trade imbalances, climate change cooperation, digital economy transparency, and human rights. This comprehensive engagement highlights the evolving dynamics of the nuanced EU-China relationship marked by economic complexities and shared global responsibilities.

Amidst the global backdrop of strategic, economic, and political tensions between the United States and China, and the observable expansion of China’s influence worldwide, the significance of the summit between China and the European Union (EU) becomes particularly noteworthy. This diplomatic engagement marks an essential juncture, as it provides an avenue through which the EU can develop a nuanced comprehension of various dimensions in its relationship with China. While it does not unequivocally indicate China’s precise influence on Europe, the summit serves as a mechanism for alleviating tensions and fostering a platform for mutual understanding. Consequently, the summit holds considerable significance as it contributes to the evolving dynamics of Sino-European relations, offering both parties an opportunity to navigate complexities, build understanding, and potentially enhance cooperation in diverse spheres.

However, during this version of the summit, the EU emphasized the significance of an effective, rules-based international order anchored in the United Nations. Discussions among leaders addressed the Ukraine War. The EU restated that, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China bears a unique responsibility in upholding the fundamental principles of the UN Charter, which include safeguarding territorial integrity and sovereignty. The EU called upon China to leverage its influence over Russia to bring an end to its actions and actively participate in Ukraine’s Peace Formula. Stressing the importance, the EU urged China to refrain from providing lethal weaponry to Russia and to prevent any attempts by Russia to evade or undermine the impact of imposed sanctions.

Concerning the Middle East, the EU strongly condemned the attacks carried out by Hamas against Israel. As expected the EU reiterated Israel’s “right to self-defense” in accordance with international humanitarian law. Both parties emphasized the crucial importance of protecting all civilians, improving the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, and implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2712. Additionally, the EU and China affirmed their dedication to the two-state solution.

The EU and China share substantial economic ties, engaging in goods trade amounting to EUR 2.3 billion daily. Despite this, the relationship is critically and structurally imbalanced, evident in the EU’s trade deficit nearing EUR 400 billion. The EU, emphasizing its commitment to avoiding detachment or inward turns, expressed concerns about inherent distortions and adverse impacts stemming from China’s manufacturing overcapacity. Stressing the significance of a more balanced economic relationship characterized by a level playing field and reciprocity, the EU highlighted the imperative for addressing core interests and longstanding demands. These include advocating for transparency in the business environment, establishing predictable supply chains, addressing trade distortions, particularly related to industrial subsidies, and eliminating sector-specific trade barriers.

The EU conveyed its anticipation for China to take tangible measures in enhancing market access and improving the investment environment for EU investors and exporters. Emphasizing a strategy of de-risking without complete decoupling, the EU aimed to reinforce resilience by addressing critical dependencies in specific sectors while adhering to World Trade Organization rules.

Both the EU and China share an interest in fostering an effective multilateral, rules-based trading system capable of addressing contemporary challenges. The EU highlighted the collective responsibility of both parties to ensure a transparent and competitive environment for the digital economy, advocating for a level playing field in artificial intelligence that upholds human rights and fundamental freedoms. Emphasizing the shared objective of preventing the fragmentation of standards in information and communication technologies, recent agreements were noted, including the establishment of working groups on financial regulation, cosmetics, export controls, and wines and spirits. Anticipating the swift activation of mechanisms facilitating cross-border data flows, leaders acknowledged progress on customs, intellectual property rights, food safety, safety of online products, and geographical indications. A commitment was made to reinitiate the High-Level People-to-People Dialogue in 2024.

Leaders expressed satisfaction with the ongoing collaboration on climate change and environmental initiatives, highlighting recent agreements to advance efforts in emissions trading and the circular economy. Recognizing their status as major economies, the EU and China acknowledged their shared responsibility to lead global endeavors in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly at the COP28. The EU acknowledged positive developments in expanding renewable energy and China’s commitment to addressing methane emissions. Emphasizing the urgent need for all nations to enhance their climate ambitions, the EU urged China to join global initiatives such as the pledge to triple renewable energy capacity and double the rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030, along with the Global Methane Pledge.

The two states also deliberated on issues spanning debt sustainability, food security, health and pandemic preparedness, biodiversity, water management, ocean governance, plastic pollution, and deforestation. The EU reiterated concerns regarding the human rights situation in China, specifically addressing systemic violations in Xinjiang and Tibet, forced labor, mistreatment of human rights defenders and minority groups, and the ongoing erosion of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong. While welcoming the resumption of the Human Rights Dialogue in February 2023, the EU stressed its expectation for the next dialogue to occur in 2024 in China.

The EU restated its commitment to the One China policy and voiced apprehensions regarding escalating tensions in the Taiwan Strait. The heightened instability observed in the East and South China Seas poses threats to both regional and global prosperity and security. Strongly opposing any unilateral endeavors to alter the existing state of affairs through force or coercion, the EU emphasized the necessity of resolving disputes through peaceful means, adhering to international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Additionally, the two nations engaged in discussions on the circumstances prevailing on the Korean Peninsula, in Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Iran.

The China-EU summit highlights a complex future, urging strategic assessments and diplomatic finesse for navigating nuanced global dynamics effectively.

The US Senate has rejected a supplementary funding bill that encompassed financial assistance for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, along with provisions to enhance border security. The vote, primarily split along party lines, heightens the likelihood of Congress failing to authorize additional funding for Ukraine before the year concludes, aligning with the White House’s warning about the urgent need for more aid to Kyiv. This decision follows Senate Democrats formally introducing a $111 billion supplemental security bill, aligning with the funding request from Joe Biden in October to support U.S. allies abroad. The outcome raises the prospect of potential repercussions for the United States, especially if China forges new understandings with Western nations amid this situation.

Chinese President Xi Jinping cautioned top EU officials on December 7 against perceiving China and Europe as rivals or engaging in confrontation due to their differing political systems. Xi expressed China’s willingness to establish the European Union as a key economic and trade partner and collaborate on science and technology, including artificial intelligence. He urged the EU to eliminate any interference in the bilateral relationship during talks at Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, emphasizing the need for both sides to cultivate a proper understanding, mutual trust, and encourage positive perceptions of each other. Chinese Premier Li Qiang echoed this sentiment, opposing the broad politicization and securitization of economic and trade issues, emphasizing the importance of adhering to the basic norms of market economies. Li urged the EU to exercise prudence in introducing restrictive economic and trade policies, emphasizing the need to keep trade and investment markets open. China’s Foreign Minister Wang highlighted the risks associated with broad politicization during discussions with the French counterpart, stressing the reduction of protectionism. As part of efforts to improve ties, China offered visa-free entry to citizens of the EU’s five largest economies, aiming to boost post-pandemic tourism and enhance China’s image in the West. This normalization with Europe adds an additional layer of tension for the USA, especially considering China’s growing influence in the Middle East and its recent efforts to strengthen ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Additionally, China’s approach to the Russian issue does not align clearly with the path taken by the USA.

However, Italy’s withdrawal from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) reflects a strategic decision based on their assessment that the initiative may not bring significant benefits to the country, according to the Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. This move underscores the complexity and challenges that nations face in navigating international understandings and partnerships, revealing that the future trajectory is not as straightforward as it might seem on the surface. Decisions to step back from major global initiatives suggest that countries carefully evaluate the tangible advantages and potential drawbacks associated with such collaborations. This complexity underscores the multiplex dynamics at play in global affairs, where national interests, economic considerations, and geopolitical factors intertwine to shape the course of international relations.

– Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in Modern Diplomacy [Link]