LONDON – Europe called on China to abolish trade barriers and rebalance its economic relations, following a virtual summit held on Monday between EU leaders and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
EU leaders have also raised human rights concerns, but Beijing has rejected what it calls interference in its affairs.
Monday’s video conference was a significantly scaled-down version of the original plan to hold a face-to-face summit between the 27 heads of state of the European Union and the Chinese president in the German city of Leipzig.
A resurgent coronavirus pandemic in Europe has forced the change of plan. The virtual meeting was attended by Xi, as well as the President of the European Council Charles Michel; The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country holds the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU.
Speaking at a press conference after the meeting, Michel reiterated demands for China to open up its markets.
“Europe must be a player, not a playground,” he told reporters. “Today’s meeting represents another step forward in establishing a more balanced relationship with China.”
Von der Leyen was more direct.
“We anticipate that market access barriers in China will be removed,” she said.
Europe has expressed frustration over its lack of access to Chinese markets and having to compete with state-supported industries. Brussels views the current trade relationship with China as deeply unfair, but is not seeking a trade war, said analyst Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
“The reality is that the EU would like to strengthen its economic relations with China with some adjustments,” he told VOA.
“I think COVID-19 has changed a lot of things in terms of relations with China. A lot of these countries have found China less than a business partner or a fully reliable supplier of essentials like medical supplies. So this is going to change in part. But they really don’t want to have an economic decoupling with China, ”Tsang said.
The trade talks have been overshadowed by growing criticism in Europe of China’s human rights record. The EU has demanded that Beijing end its crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong after the imposition earlier this year of a so-called “national security law,” which critics say effectively puts end to the right to protest and freedom of expression. The law will allow the Communist Party to significantly expand its power and tighten control over the Asian financial center.
Europe has expressed growing concern over China’s treatment of Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang province, where human rights groups say millions are detained amid labor reports forced and sterilization. China denies the charges.
Speaking at a post-summit press conference, Merkel said Europe would continue to raise these issues with Beijing.
“The dialogue on human rights will continue. (Chinese President Xi Jinping) proposed it,” Merkel said. “So there are already points of contact for further joint actions. But that does not mean that there is agreement on these issues.”
The United States has also repeatedly expressed concerns about China’s human rights record. Speaking on France Inter radio on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Europe to take a stronger position.
“ We have always said that when human rights are threatened, whether it is the inability to practice one’s religion and faith, or the mere ability to speak out and exercise basic rights of conscience, states -United have a role to play in making it understood that this is unacceptable, ”Pompeo said.
“This is what we have done in relation to what is going on in western China. This is what we have done in other parts of the world. This is what we hope and expect from other countries around the world. And we believe that Europeans understand this risk the same way we do. We hope that they will take measures that reflect the gravity with which these human rights violations must be viewed. “
China’s state-run news agency Xinhua reported that Xi rejected any interference in Chinese affairs at Monday’s virtual summit, particularly on human rights.
The Brussels-Beijing relationship is strained, analyst Tsang said.
“Governments in general, and the EU as a whole, are also taking a firmer stance, reflecting the shift in public opinion towards China.”
The EU is China’s largest trading partner, and analysts say Beijing wants to avoid further disputes amid its trade war with the United States. Brussels said it would continue to raise security and human rights concerns even as it seeks to increase trade.
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