EU-China Resume Strategic Dialogue: A New Impetus for Bilateral Relations?

EU-China Resume Strategic Dialogue: A New Impetus for Bilateral Relations?


On September 28, 2021, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, also Vice-President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell, spoke by video-conference to the Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China, also State Councillor, Wang Yi, marking the 11th EU-China Strategic Dialogue.

The Summit comes as a first high-level EU-China dialogue in the aftermath of the EU imposed sanctions on Chinese officials on March 22, 2021, for human rights violations, an initiative also joined by the United States, Great Britain and Canada. While the violations were denied by Beijing, China sanctioned, in response, 10 EU officials, 4 EU institutions along with exponents of the EU civil society and academia. The exchange of punitive measures resulted in the EU Parliament freezing the ratification process of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments between EU and China on May 20, 2021. In this regard, the high-level meeting may indicate both parties’ availability to resume dialogue.

The two high officials discussed the EU-China relations as well as international and regional issues, touching upon Afghanistan, Myanmar and the Indo-Pacific. Climate change and fight against the pandemic also figured in the exchange of ideasbetween the two high-officials.

The EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, showcased the necessity of continuing to engage intensively in a number of important areas, while noting that "disagreements still persisted". EU's top diplomat also reaffirmed the "validity of the EU's multifaceted approach towards China". Welcoming China's decision to cease external coal power finance, as part of China's committent to a cleaner environment, Josep Borrell stressed on "the necessity to engage on human rights issues and to resume the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue, as a key component of a mature relationship." In this regard, EU's top diplomat expressed his hope for a further meeting to be held before the end of the year, in order to "address disagreements between the EU and China". According to a press release of the European External Action Service, a future EU-China meeting would discuss "the situation in Xinjiang and Hong Kong".

While discussing Taiwan, the EU High Representative pointed that "EU has always been, and would continue, applying its One China policy consistently", also mentioning that "EU and its Member States have an interest to develop cooperation with Taiwan, a like-minded and important economic partner in the region, without any recognition of statehood".

The statement comes in the context of the recent urge on behalf of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament to the European Commission and the European Council to "move towards a bilateral investment agreement with Taiwan" and start "the impact assessment, public consultation and scoping exercise with the Taiwanese authorities". One may consider such an approach as a purely economic endeavour, given Taiwan's role as EU's 14th largest trading partner with a volume of trade higher than the one recorded in 2020 by EU with Vietnam or Singapore, countries which already signed a comprehensive trade and investment agreement with the EU.

While no direct references were made, Borrell's statement might have come amid certain effervescences between Lithuania and China over Vilnius’ decision to allow a "Taiwanese Representation Office", a form of representation that departs from the more usual designation of "Taipei Representative Office". Despite both Brussels and Vilnius continuous adherence to "One China" principle, Beijing decided to revoke certain export licenses owned by Lithuanian companies in China and halt certain shipments, a decision which surprised many in Europe.

The top diplomats' discussion also touched upon the EU Indo-Pacific Strategy, highlighting EU's "inclusive nature and cooperative approach". In this regard, EU's High Representative welcomed the joint statement by Presidents Biden and Macron in the context of the recently announced AUKUS defence agreement and similarly referred to the "fruitful exchanges in the margins of UN General Assembly, including with his UN counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken."

The Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, held that “the two sides should adhere to mutual respect, seek common ground while shelving differences, expand cooperation, reduce rivalry, maintain the international order based on the UN Charter and international law, and cooperate to respond to common challenges such as the epidemic and climate change”, stressing that the two parties “must consolidate this positive momentum, increase political mutual trust, properly manage differences, and make contributions to the two major forces of China and Europe in response to global challenges.”

While referring to both “Belt and Road” initiative and EU interconnection initiative, the top Chinese diplomat urged to “strengthen” economic, trade and digital high-level dialogues and “promote the deepening” of the green and digital partnerships.

On the human rights matter, Wang Yi mentioned that China is “willing to carry out human rights dialogue and cooperation with other countries”, stressing, however, that his country <<does not accept human rights "teachers" and opposes interfering in other countries' internal affairs under the pretext of human rights.>>

With regard to the Taiwan-related exchange of views, the head of Chinese diplomacy explained that the “One-China principle” represents a “universal consensus of the international community” as well as “the political basis for China to develop relations with the EU and its member states”. In a reference to Chinese classical philosophy, Wang stressed that “If the foundation is not strong, the ground will shake and the mountains will shake.” The quote is usually associated in China with “rites”, holding a similar role with Ethics in the European philosophy, hence underlining the role of moral values in ascertaining the good deeds from the bad. Imbalances, on the contrary, interpreted as stemming from a lack of moral values, are believed – according to the Chinese philosophical tenets – to be the leading cause of catastrophes such as floods, droughts and earthquakes.

While EU-China relations are of complex nature in the light of both common interests, such as tackling climate change and biodiversity, as well as the different social, economic and political paths followed by the two sides, the high-level meeting came at a delicate geopolitical moment. Naturally, one may assume that the results of the Borrell-Wang dialogue will figure on the agenda of the 27 EU leaders reunited today, October 5, in Brdo, Slovenia. One, however, shall similarly not deny neither the importance of holding upon the European values that lay at the very foundation of the EU as a bloc, nor the significance of the two parties maintaining ties, which, in turn, may contribute to finding common grounds to strengthen the relations between EU and its Member States with China, as part of a robust Europe-Asia dialogue.

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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.