Xi Seeks to Steady China-Europe Ties With Call to Council Chief
(Bloomberg) -- Chinese President Xi Jinping will speak with European Council chief Charles Michel, the latest indication that Beijing and Brussels are seeking a way forward following a spat over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
The conversation scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Friday (Brussels time) is one of several announced by senior Chinese and European officials in recent weeks, as Beijing prepares for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s exit. The call with Michel appeared to be part of an effort by Beijing to bolster alternative lines of communication as it seeks to resolve a dispute over tit-for-tat Xinjiang sanctions without Merkel, one of its most preferred negotiating partners.
The disagreement has stalled the European Parliament’s approval of a landmark China investment pact spearheaded by Merkel and signed in December. Brussels is also looking for Beijing to ease Covid-related travel restrictions for its corporate executives and greater cooperation on vaccines and environmental issues such as climate change.
Xi spoke with Merkel on Wednesday, in what was billed as a “farewell” exchange between the two veteran leaders. Merkel will leave office after the next government is formed in Berlin, with election winner Social Democrat Olaf Scholz aiming to forge a three-way coalition between parties that have said little about how they plan to manage relations with China.
The China-Europe exchanges come against the backdrop of a thaw between Washington and Beijing and recent moves by U.S. President Joe Biden that have strained ties with Brussels. While Biden is now making plans for a video summit with Xi later this year, his support for Australia’s exit from a French submarine contract and the U.S. military’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan have drawn fresh criticism in Europe.
“If the Europeans see the Americans improving relations, then they’ll ask ‘why do we want to be the rivals of China?’” said Wang Huiyao, president and founder of the Center for China & Globalization policy research group in Beijing. “There’s no point in that.”
One European diplomat based in Beijing cautioned against reading too much into Xi’s decision to speak with Michel. Still, readouts from the conversation would be watched closely for details on its topics and duration, the diplomat said.
While Xi last spoke with Michel in December as part of a summit with Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron that resulted in the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, he has met with European leaders on their own before. He had a call with Michel in December 2019, and hosted then-European Council President Donald Tusk and then-European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker in Beijing in July 2018.
The Xi-Michel call takes place ahead of the Oct. 21-22 European summit, when leaders are expected to discuss foreign issues such as the bloc’s approach to the Indo-Pacific region. The Chinese president is expected to miss the upcoming Group of 20 summit in Rome and United Nations climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, as he continues to avoid international travel during the pandemic.
Brussels froze approval of the investment pact after Beijing sanctioned some European lawmakers in retaliation against the bloc’s own measures to punish China for allegations of forced labor and other abuses in Xinjiang. China denies mistreating its Uyghur Muslim minority, describing its policies as an effort to prevent extremism, fight terrorism and reduce poverty.
Wang, of the CCG research group, expected to see both sides tone down their ideological differences, discuss reviving the investment pact -- and possibly even talk about lifting sanctions.
“China will be doing great as time goes by -- and people see that,” Wang said. “Who doesn’t want to get along with the largest growing middle-class country in the world?”
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