A Muted EU-China Summit

Thursday’s summit, the first held in-person since 2019, comes at a time of heightened tensions in EU-China relations, when European frustration about Chinese trade practices and Beijing’s perceived apathy to core European interests amid Russia’s war in Ukraine is broad and growing. The Xi administration, meanwhile, has warned EU leaders against advancing a de-risking agenda that could jeopardize China’s technology ambitions and economic interests. Mutual concern about the direction of travel on strategic and economic fronts was on full display during the summit, which produced few meaningful deliverables.

Q1: What is the EU-China Summit?

A1: Leaders in Brussels and Beijing have held annual summits since 1998. Over time these have come to follow a relatively fixed format—covering bilateral issues, issues in the economic, digital, security, and foreign policy spheres, as well as multilateral and global issues. This year’s summit, held on Thursday, December 7 in Beijing, was the first in-person summit since April 2019 (when leaders from China and the European Union gathered in Brussels). The past two summits were virtual.

As part of the summit, European Council president Charles Michel and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen met first with Chinese president Xi Jinping and then sat down with Premier Li Qiang. Consistent with reporting ahead of the summit, no joint statement was issued. While EU-China summits have historically involved joint statements, the record for this has been mixed since 2016, when the two sides were unable to do so for the first time due to disagreements on trade and the South China Sea.

Q2: Where are EU-China relations heading into the summit?

A2: Beijing turned up the charm offensive in the lead-up to the summit. It moved to temporarily grant visa-free travel to citizens of five European member states (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands) late last month. And Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis recently shared that China has curtailed most coercive trade measures put in place after Vilnius allowed Taiwan to open a de facto embassy there in 2021. That said, these apparently conciliatory moves (which also serve Chinese interests amid a slowing economy) have remained small and are unlikely to move the needle on a relationship that has broadly soured due to tightening Beijing-Moscow ties and structural trade friction.

Two issues—China-Russia ties and structural trade imbalances—were top of mind for the Brussels delegation heading to Beijing. In recent trips to the Chinese capital in September and October respectively, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis clarified the European focus on these two overarching issues in relations with China. They warned their Chinese counterparts that responding to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine was a top EU foreign policy and security priority and Beijing’s stance has been reputationally damaging. And Dombrovskis reiterated that although Europe does not seek to decouple from China, asymmetries in market access, data localization requirements, technology transfer pressures, and poor intellectual property protection remain major structural challenges in the economic domain.

Meanwhile, Beijing is watching nervously as the bloc’s de-risking agenda becomes more concrete (although its timeline remains unclear as the commission consults with member states on critical technologies and faces skepticism about agenda items such as outbound investment screening). Beijing has probed EU leaders on the agenda as well as new or discussed measures on Chinese electric vehicle (EV), wind, and steel imports.

Q3: What were expectations heading into the summit?

A3: The summit follows a year of relatively intensive in-person engagement between the two sides that was curtailed during the Covid-19 pandemic. During her trip to Beijing in April, von der Leyen announced the resumption of the High-Level Economic and Trade Dialogue (main platform for discussing economic issues in the relationship, last held virtually in July 2022) and the EU-China High-Level Digital Dialogue (a new platform launched in September 2020 that had not met again). And the human rights dialogue was resumed in February 2023, following Michel’s December 2022 visit to Beijing. Officials working on economic, digital, climate, human rights, and strategic issues all met in person this year, after China's pandemic isolation. To a degree, however, these meetings largely focused on identifying opportunities for further dialogue, mirroring engagements between the U.S.-China bureaucracies over the past twelve months.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi framed the summit as a chance to delineate a new blueprint for bilateral relations. But each party took pains to downplay the chance of immediate or substantial breakthroughs. Chinese Party-state mouthpiece Global Times preemptively sounded alarm about foreign forces (read: Washington) attempting to “sabotage” what is otherwise a “highly complementary” relationship between the European Union and China. And there few European observers assessed this year would be different from last year’s summit, held via video conference, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell subsequently labeled a “dialogue of the deaf” (a reference primarily to China’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). EU officials appeared confident the summit would be short on concrete deliverables, however minor, in some ways drawing a contrast to the meeting between Xi and U.S. President Biden last month where agreements on artificial intelligence, military-to-military dialogue, and fentanyl cooperation were announced.

Q4: What deliverables did the summit produce?

A4: There were few surprises. No major deliverables, and themes raised by both sides have been heard before. Xi, for example, gave standard talking points that the European Union should not view China as a rival and EU-China relations should brook no foreign interference. These are likely to induce a shrug in Brussels, where views of China are hardening, and officials are increasingly expressing frustration with Beijing’s attributions of a tougher EU stance on China to U.S. influence.

As expected, EU representatives pushed Chinese leadership on structural issues in the trade relationship, while reiterating that decoupling was not the goal of economic and trade measures taken to reduce dependencies and improve European economic resilience. Longstanding complaints of European businesses regarding Chinese trade and investment practices—including lack of transparency in operational conditions, trade-distorting industrial subsidies, and trade barriers in particular sectors—were brought to the table.

EU leaders warned Beijing they were watching Chinese industrial overcapacity closely. To combat slowed GDP growth, China has pumped money into manufacturing in a bid to boost exports. Yellen raised the issue too when meeting with her Chinese counterpart ahead of the Xi-Biden summit, but Europe is particularly vulnerable—especially in renewable energy products it needs for the green transition and on which other countries (such as the United States) limit market access for Chinese goods.

As expected, progress on EU priorities was more incremental and surface-level than structural. Many of the deliverables were already known, with some announced as part of high-level engagement throughout the past year. These included working groups on cosmetics, financial regulation, wines and spirits, and export controls. An agreement to facilitate easier cross-border flows of certain types of data, lauded by European leaders, came out of the second High-Level Digital Dialogue in September.

Standard for an EU-China summit, geopolitical issues were on the menu—and EU leaders took the opportunity, as expected, to push Beijing to adopt a more active role in deterring further Russian aggression and warn Chinese leaders against supply of lethal weapons to Russia. Importantly, the European side cautioned Beijing to prevent attempts by Moscow to undermine or circumvent Western sanctions—a sore point after the EU sanctions envoy estimated in the fall that as much as 70 percent of high-technology imports being used on the battlefield against Ukrainians were routing through China to reach Russia. There are indications more Chinese entities may be on the next EU sanctions package—a point European leaders surely made clear to Beijing during the summit.

On Taiwan, the language was standard, but European leaders took advantage of the opportunity to share concerns with Beijing about rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait and warn against any change to the status quo by force or coercion. Brussels and EU member states have begun more frequently vocalizing that peace and stability across the Strait are vital—“indispensable,” as the G7 statement in Hiroshima put it—to the prosperity and security of the international community, and parliamentary visits from the European Union and EU member states to Taiwan have recovered from a slump during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The two sides discussed a range of other multilateral issues such as food security, climate change, debt sustainability, and pandemic preparedness. The Europeans also pressed Beijing on its human rights practices, actions in Xinjiang and Tibet, and continued erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong. The one immediate deliverable came in the realm of people-to-people exchange, where the two sides agreed to resume (yet another) high-level dialogue: the High-Level People-To-People Dialogue (established in 2012 and last held in 2020) will meet again in 2024, which will mark its sixth iteration. The move reflects Europe’s relative openness to continue engaging with China in less sensitive areas such as culture, student exchange, and sports, even as strategic and structural frictions intensify.

Lily McElwee is deputy director and fellow with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Lily McElwee
Deputy Director and Fellow, Freeman Chair in China Studies