EU Council chief Michel set to walk fine line with trip to China

European Council President Charles Michel will have to perform a balancing act when he meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing next week, as he is expected to confront Beijing over human rights and Taiwan while seeking to maintain trade ties.

“We will discuss global challenges as well as subjects of common interest,” Michel tweeted on Thursday (24 November), announcing the trip, first reported by the Financial Times.

Michel will visit Beijing on 1 December and will meet Xi and two other senior Chinese officials, Li Keqiang and Li Zhanshu.

“Against the backdrop of a tense geopolitical and economic environment, the visit is a timely opportunity for both EU and China to engage,” his spokesperson Barend Leyts added.

A senior EU official said Michel had a “long-standing request to go to China” that could not be fulfilled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the persistent zero-COVID policy and lockdowns.

The visit will be lasting only one day to avoid quarantine requirements.

But while a bilateral meeting between Michel and Xi “had been foreseen” in Bali, it was decided that an in-person visit to China would be better.

According to the senior EU official, Michel is expected to tell Xi that in Taiwan, which China adamantly sees as part of its own territory, “the use of force is not justified and that the EU has no interest in conflict”.

He is also expected to emphasise that “a world with the UN at the centre” is needed, and will also raise human rights.

China’s foreign ministry did not offer any immediate comment on Michel’s trip next week.

Deep divisions

The trip comes amid a revived debate among EU member states as to how to handle relations with China in the future, which the EU increasingly sees as a competitor, or even a “strategic rival”.

The soul-searching exercise comes amid concerns over Beijing’s rights record, threats to Taiwan, trade pressure on some EU countries, and support for Russia.

EU leaders last month expressed increasing concern about economic dependencies with China and said they needed a united stance towards Beijing, without agreement between capitals on how this could look like.

The debate came after an internal memo by the EU’s diplomatic service, seen by EURACTIV, which called on the EU to view China primarily as a competitor with limited areas of potential engagement.

The United States meanwhile has been pushing its Western allies to adopt a more hawkish stance on China.

However, some EU members with important trade links are reluctant to take a clear position towards Beijing.

Michel is expected to walk a fine line between Germany, with its important economic interests in China, and EU members like Lithuania, which has attracted Beijing’s anger by building closer ties with Taiwan.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to China earlier this month, meant to push for greater economic cooperation and more equal trade ties had raised eyebrows.

Many EU capitals saw it as a contradiction of efforts to not repeat the same dependency mistake as with Russia.

Some EU diplomats have raised the question of why Michel is going on his own instead of with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen or EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell.

“It’s a bit odd that after Scholz burned his fingers with his recent trip, and Macron did not decide to go to China yet, Michel now decided to go solo,” one EU diplomat said.

However, EU senior officials point out that the main purpose of the visit is to keep engaging with China, on some issues as a partner, rather than breaking off ties

Russian elephant in the room

At the same time, Europeans have also been concerned by Beijing’s bond with Moscow, even in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Earlier this month, in an incident that underlined the tensions between Brussels and Beijing, a speech that Michel had been scheduled to broadcast at a Chinese trade fair was cancelled.

Chinese authorities reportedly wanted to censor all parts of Michel’s speech about the Ukraine war, a sensitive issue for Beijing, which seeks to position itself as neutral but has offered diplomatic backing to its strategic ally Russia.

At the recent ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, just ahead of the G20 summit where Xi met US President Joe Biden, Michel urged Beijing to push Russia to respect international law.

On Russia, Michel will not be asking China to be a mediator, as some have suggested, but “every effort to resolve this war would be welcome and if one country has an influence on Russia, it is China,” a senior EU official said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]


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