The leaders of Europe and China met on Monday (June 22) for a high-level summit to discuss their relationship, and each side wrote a statement summarizing the subsequent meeting. But a quick read of those readings could leave one with the mistaken impression that they attended two different meetings.
The divergence in descriptions of the two sides is a vivid sign that the EU and China are not on the same page. That’s a problem, given that they account for about 35% of global GDP (pdf) and are in the process of negotiating a joint investment agreement that would allow European companies to do business more freely in China and lead to more ambitious cooperation between Brussels. and Beijing on climate change. In a statement, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China criticized the summit for failing to produce enough concrete commitments or a joint statement, noting that “the separate announcements on the summit’s results had minimal overlap.”
The summit brought together the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, and the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. A close side-by-side look at the respective statements on each side, both what is included and what is omitted, is emphasized and minimized, illustrates the broader tensions in the EU-China relationship.
Since 2019, EU officials have conceived of China as a “strategic partner” and a “systemic rival”. Von der Leyen and Michel echoed this language at the post-summit press conference, stating that China and the EU do not share “the same values, political system or approach to multilateralism”. But the Chinese declaration (link in Chinese) presents those differences, emphasizing only the mutual respect of the EU and China for multilateralism, and affirming that “there is no fundamental conflict of interest between China and Europe.”
The European statement emphasizes the bloc’s differences with Beijing on human rights issues and specifically mentions the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, the imposition of a new security law in Hong Kong, and the arrest of the bookseller Gui Minhai by the Chinese authorities. .
The Chinese statement does not mention these containment points. That’s not surprising: Diplomatic declarations are written to present the best aspects of a country and minimize the rest. But human rights concerns are a major and growing obstacle to the EU-China relationship. For example, the European Parliament adopted a resolution last week urging member states to file a case against the Chinese government’s new Hong Kong law with the International Court of Justice for allegedly violating international agreements. And the EU has called for a human rights dialogue with China this year. So disconnection on this issue is important.
Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University in London, says that Beijing’s official statements are aimed primarily at national audiences, with the aim of projecting a positive image of China’s relations with the world. “If you accept that, then what you are doing with the EU meeting makes perfect sense,” says Tsang.
Martin Sebena, a doctoral researcher studying EU-China relations at the University of Hong Kong, who used to work at the Slovak embassy in Beijing, pays close attention to China’s diplomatic readings of his meetings with foreign countries. Neither side presents a neutral account of a meeting, he said, but there are two main factors at play for Beijing: many more issues are considered outside the limits of the Chinese side, so they have to be “reformulated or presented differently;” and China also has “more room to modify the message because its population does not hold them accountable.”
“If a democratic country said something outrageous in a press release that is clearly false, it would be called,” said Sebena. “But China does not have these concerns.”
“Of course, China is welcome to issue its own press releases indicating its own positions and interpretation of the result,” EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy spokeswoman Virginie Battu-Henriksson told Quartz. She noted that the Chinese statement referred to specific commitments made during the summit. “As the two EU presidents said yesterday, now is the time to accelerate and deliver on the commitments made.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
This is not the first time that there has been a controversy like this. China issued a statement on May 27 about the phone call by its foreign minister, Wang Yi, with French foreign policy adviser Emmanuel Bonne, in which Bonne allegedly “reaffirmed” that France “has no intention of interfering in the Hong Kong affairs. ” But France rejected this characterization two days later, stating that “it fully agrees[s]”With the EU’s expression of ‘grave concern’ over Beijing’s movements to exercise control over Hong Kong. While not an outright denial of China’s statement, it seems unlikely that Bonne has vowed not to interfere with Hong Kong affairs.
Earlier this month, the EU also called China for its “selective” and “unacceptable” reports of a meeting between Wang and Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat. The Chinese statement (link in Chinese) quoted Borrell as saying that the EU “seeks to have dialogue and cooperation with China on the basis of mutual respect, not rivalry or confrontation”, very different from Borrell’s representation of China as a ” systemic rival. ” “As stated in the EU declaration.
Still, it is not clear that the latest Beijing statement causes another controversy in Europe, especially because, as Tsang of SOAS argues, “what the Chinese are guilty of is much more a matter of omission than contradiction.” But with negotiations for a joint investment agreement already underway and an agreement that seems increasingly out of reach, what is omitted from the statements, from human rights to political values, could be as informative as what is included.