The leaders of China, France and Germany threw their support behind an EU-China investment agreement on Monday, despite the deal’s failure to gain widespread backing in Europe, according to a Chinese summary of a video call between the three countries’ leaders.
In a call between China’s Xi Jinping and counterparts Angela Merkel of Germany and France’s Emmanuel Macron, each expressed hope that the deal would be approved soon, the Chinese readout said.
The call came at an increasingly tense moment for EU-China ties, with growing concerns about China’s human rights record and coercive economic practices pervading both Brussels’ institutions and member states.
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The agreement has been stalled by the European Parliament in response to China’s retaliatory sanctions on some of its members.
Macron and Merkel, according to a readout from the French government, “expressed their serious concerns about the human rights situation in China and reiterated their demands regarding the fight against forced labour”.
But for the most part, the three discussed ways of increasing cooperation and expanding the EU-China relationship in the face of “suspicion and zero-sum games”, said Xi.
They agreed to continue to work together on issues such as climate change, the pandemic, and international trade.
“The world needs mutual respect and sincere cooperation more than ever, instead of suspicion and zero-sum games. It is hoped that China and the EU will expand consensus and cooperation and play an important role in properly responding to global challenges,” Xi said.
The Chinese summary said France “is committed to continuing to promote cooperation with China in a pragmatic manner, supports the conclusion of the EU-China investment agreement, strengthens cultural exchanges, and welcomes Chinese companies to invest in France”.
It added that France “is willing to continue to maintain communication with China on issues such as WTO reform, climate change and biodiversity protection”.
“Germany supports the convening of the 23rd EU-China Summit as soon as possible, and hopes that the EU-China Investment Agreement will be approved as soon as possible,” it said of Merkel‘s contribution.
Merkel, Beijing said, “expressed her congratulations to China for overcoming the impact of the epidemic and realising economic recovery and development”.
A summary of the call issued by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office said the three had “exchanged views in particular on the status of relations between the EU and China” and “also talked about international trade, climate protection and biodiversity”.
In a nod to the EU‘s desire to maintain independence from the United States on its China policy, Xi said that “it is hoped that the EU will play a more active role in international affairs, truly embody strategic autonomy, and jointly maintain world peace”.
In the face of a potential boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics next year, he added that the three should “develop in the right direction and support each other to successfully host the Beijing Winter Olympics and the Paris Summer Olympics”.
They also discussed the Iranian nuclear deal, Afghanistan, and Myanmar, the Chinese readout said, in what was their second discussion in a few months following a call in April.
In contrast to the tone of Monday’s call, however, the European Parliament is set to debate and vote for a new motion on Hong Kong on Thursday over the closure of tabloid newspaper Apple Daily.
Parties will start negotiating the text of the resolution on Tuesday. Draft positions seen by the South China Morning Post include a renewed call for sanctions on Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials over their roles in the crackdown, a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, and assistance for media workers at risk of being arrested under Hong Kong’s sweeping national security law.
The prevailing mood suggests parliament is unlikely to reconsider its decision in May to stop discussing the investment deal until China lifts retaliatory sanctions on its members.
EU-China tensions have been stoked by the Biden administration’s efforts to build a coalition of allies to counter the perceived China threat.
On the eve of the G7 Summit in England last month, Brussels joined the US in calling for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
At the summit itself, the EU helped craft the strongest rebuke of Beijing since the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989. The communique urged China to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms” in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and, for the first time in the group’s history, expressed concerns over the situation with Taiwan.
The G7 launched a rival infrastructure programme to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, while at a EU-US summit the week after, the pair established a trade and technology council, also seen as a way to contain China.
Nonetheless, on Monday’s call Merkel said she was “willing to actively study and join” China’s own Support for Africa’s Development Partnership Initiative, which seeks to deepen Beijing’s involvement in Africa, the Chinese readout said.
The call likely marks one of Merkel’s last official engagements with China as German Chancellor, with her 16-year tenure set to come to an end after September’s election.
Her departure is predicted to hasten a shift in German-Chinese relations, and by default, wider EU-China ties.
Merkel‘s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), looks set to retain the chancellorship, but in a likely coalition involving the Greens, which advocate a tougher policy on China’s human rights record and coercive economic behaviour.
The CDU‘s candidate Armin Laschet favours maintaining a status quo with Beijing, but the party itself is torn, with its manifesto describing China as “the greatest foreign and security policy challenge today”.
With Merkel leaving office, Macron has been a more visible presence in Europe‘s relationship with China.
It was initially planned that the now-stalled investment deal would be ratified under the French rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2022, but that would require MEPs to resume discussions on the deal.
Macron has advocated improving ties with both China and Russia and was critical of a communique following the Nato Summit in June which named China as a “systemic competitor”.
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