Merkel, Macron Urge China to Allow More Flights to Help Ties

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron pressed Xi Jinping in a video summit to allow more flights from Europe as they sought to repair ties with Beijing.

China and the European Union have struggled to keep cooperation afloat as the bloc’s leaders have turned sharply toward criticizing Beijing’s human rights record. While the call Monday covered a wide range of topics, the focus was on trying to smooth over those differences.

The Chinese president urged the European leaders to embrace “mutual respect and close collaboration, rather than suspicion, antagonism or zero-sum games,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency. Xi said the two sides should continue to improve “fast tracks” for personnel exchanges.

European leaders have adopted a sharper tone with China alongside U.S. President Joe Biden’s ambitions to bring traditional allies in line to press for action over democracy and human rights. China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority in its western region of Xinjiang has emerged as a key point of tension, with officials on the two sides coming under sanctions. In May, EU lawmakers scuppered the ratification of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment.

Merkel and Macron have sought to establish a more independent EU foreign policy from the U.S., especially when it comes to dealing with China and Russia. The two leaders last month tried to restart EU talks with the Kremlin, which haven’t been held since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but the plan was overruled by member states.

Merkel told reporters one “positive development” from Monday’s call was that Xi signaled China’s willingness to cooperate with the EU in Africa. “This can only be a good thing if we discuss our respective standards and approach” to Africa, the outgoing German leader told reporters in Berlin after hosting a separate video conference on the Western Balkans.

“We will continue talks on how far we can cooperate and how far there are differences,” she said, adding that collaboration could be coordinated through the Compact With Africa program that Germany launched during its presidency of the Group of 20 in 2017.

“For the recipient countries in Africa, it’s of course always good if we avoid having many different actors with completely differing approaches,” Merkel said.

Merkel, Macron and Xi have used their trilateral forum to further engagement, including a Dec. 30 call involving EU officials that sealed an investment agreement which later ran aground.

The two European leaders urged China to ease restrictions for Europeans wanting to travel to the country, an Elysee official familiar with the discussion said. The official also said the three leaders agreed there’s a window of opportunity to revive the Iran nuclear deal that must be seized.

They said Europeans must have better access to the Chinese market and requested fair competition so foreign companies in China can benefit from conditions similar to the ones that Chinese firms have in Europe, according to the official, who asked not to be identified.

The discussion included cooperation in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, global vaccine supplies as well as international and regional issues, Merkel’s chief spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said in an emailed statement.

They also talked about climate protection and biodiversity, with the chancellor and Macron calling for further adjustments to short-term CO2 reduction targets and additional common efforts to protect biodiversity.

Xi said China was willing to convene another leaders’ meeting with the EU at an early date, as well as conduct high-level dialogues in strategic, trade, digital and climate sectors, according to Xinhua. He sought support for ensuring a successful Winter Olympics next year in Beijing, which some critics of China have sought to boycott over human rights concerns.

Sharper Tone

The Elysee official didn’t detail the exchanges on human rights, but said Merkel and Macron evoked China’s crackdown on its Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province, as well as its treatment of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

China has denied claims by human rights groups that it forced ethnic Muslims into internment camps, work programs and birth-control initiatives. A United Nations assessment said anywhere from tens of thousands to “upwards of 1 million” Uyghurs have been detained.

Statements by the Group of Seven and North Atlantic Treaty Organization voicing anxiety over China’s assertiveness both at home and abroad have also caused friction. Merkel and Macron have advocated a middle ground with China, whose cooperation they see as vital to global efforts to fight climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic.

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