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EU leaders weigh future of China ties as rivalry mounts

European Union leaders on Friday weighed the future of their increasingly testy relations with China amid expectations that President Xi Jinping would be reappointed leader at the Communist Party congress at the weekend.

During more than three hours of talks in Brussels, the 27 leaders of the world’s biggest trading bloc discussed ways to reduce their dependence on China for tech equipment and the raw minerals used to make items such as microchips, batteries and solar panels.

“The goal was to have a veritable strategic exchange” ahead of a meeting with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in December, European Council President Charles Michel said.

Michel, who chaired Friday’s EU summit, said the leaders agreed on the need to be firm with Beijing in their defence of democracy and fundamental freedoms. But they also agreed to demand a better balance of economic relations between equal partners while working with China on global issues like climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen noted the EU was “witnessing quite an acceleration of trends and tensions” with China. She said the week-long Communist Party congress has shown that Xi will continue to reinforce China’s “very assertive” and “self-reliant” tendencies.

“Clearly, China is continuing a mission to establish its dominance in east Asia and its influence globally,” von der Leyen said. “The Chinese system is fundamentally different from ours, and we are aware of the nature of the rivalry.”

The head of the EU’s executive branch underlined that the bloc has learned from Russia’s war on Ukraine how difficult it can be to rely on one country for important imports like oil and gas.

“Obviously, we have to be very vigilant when it comes to dependencies,” von der Leyen said. She said the EU must boost its own production capacities and seek out “reliable, trustworthy suppliers.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said Europe made a “historical” mistake during the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 by pushing some member states to sell their infrastructure. Greece was forced to do so with its biggest port to meet the demands of its European creditors, and Chinese shipping group COSCO bought the facility.

Macron said Europeans were “na?ve” to treat the bloc like an “open supermarket” because of public finance issues.

He said it’s important for Europe’s strategic autonomy “to define, in a respectful, transparent and clear way, and I insist on these three points with regard to China, our rules of the game.”

Macron added: “When it comes to critical technologies, where our security and defence are at stake, we want to have elements of sovereignty.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he plans to make a long-planned first visit to China as his country’s leader before a Group of 20 summit that begins in mid-November.

“I think it’s important to tend and develop our international relations properly,” said Scholz, who – unlike his two immediate predecessors – made his first Asian trip to Japan rather than China.

He said there’s a lot to talk about, including the importance of “international order and the inviolability of borders.”

At the same time, Scholz said, “no one is saying that we have to get out of there, we can’t export there any more, we can’t invest there and we can’t import from China anymore.”

But he underlined that “in an increasingly multipolar world with many strong countries, of course we shouldn’t concentrate on just a few countries.” Many other countries in Asia, Africa and South America “can be good partners,” he said.


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