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Foreign Policy

China-EU Summit: Concepts vs. Results

Dec 21, 2023
  • Jade Wong

    Senior Fellow, Gordon & Leon Institute

On Dec. 7, the leaders of the European Union, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, met in Beijing with China’s President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang in separate morning and afternoon sessions. The afternoon meeting constituted the 24th China-EU Leaders’ Summit. The event was the first face-to-face summit between Chinese and EU leaders after a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic.

Other bilateral meetings had already been held — U.S.-Europe (September), China-Russia (October) and China-U.S. (November). Additionally, the day before the China-EU summit, the Group of Seven (G7) conducted an online summit. The declarations from both the U.S.-Europe summit and the G7 summit contained significant sections concerning China.

The China-EU summit unfolded against the backdrop of two major international developments. First, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which began early last year, reinvigorated interactions between China, the U.S., Europe and Russia. Europe’s posture toward China saw improvement after China offered a peace initiative on the first anniversary of the conflict. Second, following the China-U.S. summit in San Francisco, Western countries in general began seeking more pragmatic interaction with China. The day after the U.S.-China summit in mid-November, European Commission Von der Leyen made a pivotal speech on China policy, underlining the significance of the China-EU relationship as “a determining factor for our future economic prosperity and national security.”

China and the EU share the common goal of recalibrating their relationship amid global uncertainty. However, their approaches differ, with China adopting a more conceptual stance while Europe leans toward a more results-oriented methodology. China’s foremost concern is establishing mutual understanding with Europe. In the context of the summit, it proposed three approaches: 

1. Comprehensive strategic partnership

Established 20 years ago during the unilateral U.S. military action in Iraq, this partnership resonated with China’s push for multipolarization and Europe’s advocacy of multilateralism. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in a meeting with European envoys in Beijing earlier this month, highlighted the 20th anniversary of the partnership. He conveyed China’s view of Europe as a key global player, emphasizing that dialogue and cooperation between China and Europe would prevent the formation of adversarial blocs. This stance was reiterated during the 11th China-EU Forum and the 16th round of China-EU diplomatic policy consultations held late last month. 

2. Global forces, markets and civilizations

This is the framework of the China-EU relationship proposed by President Xi a decade ago, later adopted by Europe and incorporated into the following year’s China-EU joint statement, “Deepening the EU-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership for Mutual Benefit.”

China’s policy paper on the EU called for deepening the China-EU comprehensive strategic partnership for mutual benefit and win-win cooperation, released in the same year, was also included and continues to guide China’s policy toward Europe. President Xi, at the summit, reiterated that framework, describing China and Europe as “two major forces driving multipolarity, two major markets supporting globalization and two great civilizations advocating diversity.”

He stressed that both parties should be committed to developing their relationship — to avoid seeing each other as adversaries due to differing systems, reducing cooperation because of competition or engaging in confrontation over disagreements. This approach is in stark contrast to the EU’s post-2019 characterization of China as a “partner, competitor and systemic rival.” 

3. Stability, constructiveness, mutual benefit and global reach

This concept was initially introduced by Li Qiang during the summit. He conveyed a desire to collaborate with Europe to uphold the accurate definition of a comprehensive strategic partnership and thereby enhance the dimensions of stability, constructiveness, mutual benefit and global reach in the China-EU relationship.

The talks concluded without a clear consensus on any concept. Nevertheless, the European side reaffirmed its dedication “to fostering a constructive and stable relationship with China,” according to Wang Lutong, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Europe chief.

The EU defined the summit as a “summit of choices.” It highlighted the need for concrete progress following discussions. The EU’s concerns centered on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It urged China to refrain from supporting Russia and instead participate in peace talks. On economic and trade issues, the EU sought reciprocity and risk reduction in its dealings with China.

Although the summit did not result in a joint statement or news conference, it marked progress. Cultural exchange emerged as a key potential breakthrough area in China-Europe cooperation. Following China’s recent visa exemptions for five European countries, both sides agreed to resume high-level cultural dialogue next year.

The path to economic and trade cooperation is more complex. Yet, recent intensified high-level dialogue between China and the EU have set the stage for progress. The EU’s statement on the summit specifically highlighted working groups on financial regulation, cosmetics, export controls and wine as key areas for collaboration.

At the second China-EU high-level digital dialogue in September, China suggested easing restrictions on cross-border data flows. While not yet formally implemented, this initiative received positive recognition from the EU at the summit.

Moreover, the mutual support for extending the memorandum of understanding on the carbon emissions trading system is an achievement that spans both economic-trade and global governance sectors.

Finally, as the EU prepares to introduce its 12th round of sanctions against Russia, analysts will be able to gauge Europe’s perspective on the summit by noting the presence and number of Chinese companies on the sanctions list.

Like the China-U.S. summit, the China-EU summit had its own significance. The EU called the summit “an opportunity to engage with China.” In Western foreign policy, “engagement” is a term of particular importance, standing in contrast to “containment.” This reflects Europe’s reluctance to overturn its China policy, which has been in place for the past 30 years.

When the China-EU strategic partnership was established two decades ago, it was based on a shared understanding of the international order, an element that now seems to be missing. Nevertheless, interdependence in economic-trade relations and strategic needs between China and Europe has not undergone any fundamental change.

The selective strategies employed by China and Europe in economic-trade and geopolitical matters reflect that a transformation of the international order is likely to be a prolonged process.



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