China stands ready to work closely with the EU and Asean to cement political trust, the country’s top diplomat said on Sunday, as Beijing reached out to its two biggest trading partners.
Yang Jiechi, the head of the Communist Party’s foreign affairs office, was speaking after his visit last week to Myanmar, Spain and Greece.
Yang told state news agency Xinhua the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and European Union could contribute greatly to the world economic recovery and ensure stable supply and industrial chains.
His trip came right after Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s week-long five-nation tour in Europe and Yang’s recent visit to Singapore and South Korea as China seeks to counter intensifying pressure from the United States and looks for cooperation in tackling Covid-19 and its economic aftermath.
Yang said in a written interview with state news agency Xinhua published on Sunday that the EU was “one of the most important foreign relationships for China” and “differences in social systems and development modes” should not be a barrier to cooperation as the two sides’ shared interests expand.
He also said that China was ready to set up more “fast tracks” for personal exchanges and trade with Asean countries, cooperate on Covid-19 vaccine research and distribution, and will press ahead with negotiations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea.
Yang said China and the EU should try to enhance mutual trust, effectively manage conflicts and conclude talks on a strategic agenda for cooperation that would map out their relationship for the next five years.
He also called for “the pie of common interests” to be made bigger, for trade and investment to grow and for both sides to work to reach an investment deal by the end of the year.
The investment treaty is modelled on one the US and China failed to conclude before Donald Trump’s election and the EU hopes to secure a commitment from China to improve transparency on subsidies and offer European businesses a more level playing field.
Observers and diplomatic sources said China was committed to completing the investment treaty talks with Brussels to counter the Trump administration’s decoupling and containment strategy and to maintain the lure of its market to foreign investment.
They also noted divisions within the bloc over using Chinese companies to build 5G networks and growing concerns about human rights and issues such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang, where it is accused of interning a million members of Muslim minority groups, that may influence foreign companies’ decisions about investing in China.
Wang Yiwei, a professor of European studies with Renmin University in Beijing, said that while the EU wanted “strategic autonomy” and insisted it does not want to pick sides in the disputes between the US and China, there were signs that some countries were aligning with Washington, citing the Indo-Pacific strategy Germany released last week.
“European companies are facing increasingly competitive Chinese rivals. Issues such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang offer the bloc another perspective … The coronavirus pandemic sounded the alarm on overreliance on China and served as wake-up call on diversification and self-sufficiency,” Wang said.
“The EU is adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach on the outcome of the China-EU investment deal negotiations, especially any major political commitment by President Xi Jinping in the upcoming video summit with EU leaders on September 14, as well as the presidential election result in the US which may reshape its relationship with Washington,” he said.
Yang also said China and the EU could cooperate in areas such as climate change, artificial intelligence and the green and digital economies.
However, the European Commission has been increasingly critical of China in recent months and last week Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, warned that the EU had to “correct” the economic imbalances in its relations with China, which he described as a “new empire”.
The following day, Istvan Ujhelyi, vice-chairman of the European Parliament’s committee on transport and tourism, told EurActiv that China and the EU needed to remain as “stable partners”.
“There is a growing political need in given EU member states and political groups to determine how the EU can find a sensitive balance between protecting its strategic economic interests while deepening its cooperation with global partners, especially in harder policy fields such as trade and technology,” he said.
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