China’s top diplomat will visit Europe next week, days after the foreign minister finishes his tour of the region, sources said, as Beijing seeks to boost engagement in the EU amid worsening ties with Washington.
Yang Jiechi, director of the Communist Party’s foreign affairs office, will travel to Greece and Spain, according to the two diplomatic sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A member of China’s powerful Politburo, Yang is also understood to be planning a potential stop in Portugal.
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He is also expected to help lay the groundwork for President Xi Jinping’s upcoming special summit with European Union leaders in mid-September.
Yang’s trip highlights the growing strategic importance of Europe as rivalry between China and the US intensifies. It follows Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s five-nation visit. After stops in Italy and the Netherlands, Wang was in Norway on Thursday. He will also travel to France and Germany, finishing his trip on Tuesday – days before Yang is expected to arrive.
“Clearly, Yang is much closer to Xi [than Wang is] and is the highest foreign policy representative, so [his trip] means a lot,” said Mikko Huotari, executive director of the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies. “This double effort [by Wang and Yang] is to my knowledge quite unprecedented. The timing is clearly to make sure that Europe is a strategic partner for China.”
Huotari said Yang would likely seek to go beyond the heated issue of Chinese 5G technology in talks – an area that has drawn much attention in Europe – and instead focus on partnerships with the countries he visits.
Chinese state-backed investors have shown interest in port facilities in the three countries Yang is expected to visit.
Greece’s Piraeus port is one of the biggest maritime assets controlled by Chinese, but on 5G, Athens has acknowledged US concerns about Chinese technology and said Huawei did not have a big market in the country.
In Spain, China Ocean Shipping Company holds a 51 per cent stake in Noatum Port Holdings, giving it control over the major harbours of Valencia, Bilbao and Barcelona.
And the Portuguese plan to build a new container terminal in the port of Sines – the closest European facility to the Panama Canal – has attracted both Chinese and US interest.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also been in Europe in recent weeks, warning that China was a threat to the continent’s future, as the EU remains reluctant to choose between Beijing and Washington.
Wang Yiwei, director of the Centre for European Studies at Renmin University of China, said Pompeo was trying to drive a wedge between China and Europe.
“On his recent trip to Europe, Pompeo sought to sabotage China-Europe cooperation with accusations that China is using economic cooperation for its military expansion,” Wang said.
He expected the focus of Yang’s visit to be on post-pandemic economic cooperation amid a renewed push by China for its infrastructure projects in coastal nations in Europe.
China’s president is expected to attend a virtual summit with EU leaders next month, weeks ahead of the US presidential election. The EU and China remain at loggerheads over an investment treaty, with Brussels accusing Beijing of not making concrete commitments during talks.
Yang also travelled to South Korea and Singapore last week, meeting key regional powers ahead of the US election. He had a seven-hour meeting with Pompeo in Hawaii in June, with no consensus reached.
He last met European officials in January when he attended a special conference on Libya hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He held talks with Merkel and European Council President Charles Michel on the sidelines of that gathering, calling for progress on the EU-China agenda.
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This article China’s top diplomats in ‘unprecedented’ back-to-back Europe trips amid tensions with US first appeared on South China Morning Post