Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday stressed the growing convergence between Beijing and the European Union on global issues from climate change to trade, urging the two sides to overcome their “suspicions.”
At a meeting in Paris between Xi, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, the leaders declared their desire to work together.
“Of course there are differences and competition, but it’s positive competition,” Xi told a joint press conference. “We are advancing together. We shouldn’t let suspicions lead us to be constantly looking backwards.”
European and Chinese leaders have both faced challenges from US President Donald Trump’s America-first nationalism and his attacks on international agreements covering global warming, trade or Iran’s nuclear programme.
In a joint statement issued at the end of Xi’s three-day trip to France, the Chinese leader and Macron both committed to working together to promote a rules-based international order.
“France and China consider that in the current context, committing to multilateralism is the best way of promoting international cooperation at a time when risks and common challenges are multiplying,” they said.
Merkel sounded a note of caution about how much the EU and China could achieve on their own, however.
“There can’t be multilateralism without the United States,” she said.
Though the leaders emphasized multiple areas where China, France and the EU would work together, there remain underlying tensions in the relationship — the source of the “suspicions” that Xi referred to.
This month, the European Commission labelled China a “systemic rival” and presented a 10-point plan proposing a more assertive relationship with Beijing, which Macron welcomed as a belated awakening.
Among other risks, the commission warned about the distorting effects of Chinese subsidies to its industrial groups, and European firms being forced to transfer technology to their Chinese subsidiaries.
Juncker felt compelled to start his public comments at the joint press conference in Paris by saying: “I am a friend of China.”
But Merkel too raised the vexed issue of “reciprocity” in terms of trade and investments, meaning China should offer more opportunities to European firms in its domestic market and in Chinese-funded projects abroad.
Europe wants pledges from China that its vast “Belt and Road” project — huge investments in rail and road infrastructure in countries from Asia to Europe, also known as the new “Silk Road”– will be carried out in partnership with the EU.
The initiative is a “very important project” and “we, Europeans, want to play a role,” Merkel said at the joint press conference.
“That must lead to reciprocity and we’re having a bit of trouble in finding it,” Merkel added.
EU Budget Commissioner Gunther Oettinger warned in a newspaper interview over the weekend that infrastructure in the EU “of strategic importance like power networks, high speed rail lines or harbours are no longer in European but in Chinese hands”.
Another point of contention is the use of telecom giant Huawei’s next generation 5G mobile technology, which was not raised by the leaders on Tuesday.
The United States has warned European allies that Huawei could use its 5G technology as a “backdoor” for spying.
Macron’s decision to invite Merkel and Juncker to talks with Xi underlined his desire to see all EU member states adopt a common approach to relations with Beijing.
The move came ahead of an EU-China summit in Brussels on April 9.
Macron urged his Chinese counterpart to “respect the unity of the European Union” on Tuesday, underlining concerns that Beijing was seeking to divide members.
On the first leg of his five-day Europe trip, Xi visited Italy, which became the first G7 state to sign up to the “Belt and Road” initiative.
Xi stressed on Monday that “a united and prosperous Europe fits in with our vision of a multipolar world”.
“China will always back European integration and its development,” he added in a statement to the press.
While in France, he has inked a dozen deals on nuclear power, cultural exchanges and clean energy, while Beijing also committed to buy 290 A320s and 10 A350 airliners from Europe’s Airbus conglomerate.
The final order was much bigger than the 184 A320s which Beijing had been eyeing during Macron’s state visit to China in January 2018.
The total amount of the deals, including one on the construction by French energy giant EDF and a Chinese partner of offshore wind farms, amounted to over 40 billion euros ($45 billion).