Last week’s EU-China summit in Brussels provided a forum at the highest political level for discussing several bilateral and multilateral issues and resulted in a joint statement with a focus on developing trade relations. Human rights issues were delegated to a Human Rights Dialogue between officials from both sides.
According to Commission figures, the EU, China and the US account for two-thirds of world GDP. China´s annual exports to the EU is worth € 375 billion and its imports from the EU € 198 billion.
“Our cooperation simply makes sense for both sides,” said European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker at a press conference (9 April). “The European Union is China’s largest trading partner and China is the EU’s second largest.”
“But we can do a lot better. We need to find a better balance and level of reciprocity. Europe wants to trade more and invest more in China, but we need rules that allow us to do so, “he added.
The Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang assured that China is following WTO rules and is opening up for foreign investments and that foreign companies will enjoy equal treatment.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said at the press conference that trade and economic issues were key topics at the summit. “Negotiations have been difficult, but ultimately fruitful. We managed to agree on a joint statement, which sets the direction for our partnership based on reciprocity.”
Human rights dialogue
In their joint statement, EU and China “reaffirmed that all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated” but for details, the reader will have to turn to the statement from the Human Rights Dialogue that took place a week earlier on 1-2 April.
Donald Tusk was more outspoken at the summit and said that he had “expressed again the EU’s serious concerns as regards human rights.”
At the dialogue, the EU “highlighted the deteriorating situation of civil and political rights in China, marked by the arrest and detention of a significant number of human rights defenders and lawyers. EU also raised individual cases and, for those in detention, expressed its expectation that they would be released.”
In Xinjiang, an autonomous region in the northwest of China, hundreds of thousands of people belonging to the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority have been detained in centres that China describe as vocational. The EU raised “the system of political re-education camps which has been established in Xinjiang as a worrying development”.
The Chinese response to the criticism was not recorded. The Chinese delegation focused on achievements in economic and social rights, in particular as regards employment, poverty alleviation and social protection, while the EU insisted that equal weight should be given to political and civil rights.
EU does have some success on solving individual cases, but its impact on the overall human rights situation in China is limited, despite its economic strength as a trading bloc, according to the European Think-Tank Network on China (ETNC). China is promoting the view that countries should accept each other as they are and not interfere in domestic issues.
The think-tank presented a report on political values in Europe – China relations at a seminar arranged by the Egmont Institute in Brussels last December. The authors identified four different patterns among member states, from active and vocal to passive and potentially counteractive, depending on their historical legacy and economic relations with China.
A crucial actor is the European External Action Service (EEAS), which also represents EU at the human rights dialogues, but it seems to have adopted a more subdued role according to the report and prefers “discreet diplomacy” in EU’s relations with China.
Even the Organisation of Muslim countries has been reluctant in criticising China openly. At a meeting in early March, the organisation praised China “for providing care to its Muslim citizens”.
In their joint statement, EU and China reaffirmed “the strength of their Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” and listed several bilateral and multilateral areas, where they promised to develop their cooperation.
In the introduction to the statement, the two sides committed to upholding the UN Charter and international law, and all three pillars of the UN system, namely peace and security, development and human rights.
In a rebuke to the American administration, the EU and China expressed their firm support to the rules-based multilateral trading system with the WTO at its core, fight against unilateralism and protectionism, and committed to complying with WTO rules.
Among others, they reiterated their willingness to enhance bilateral economic cooperation, trade and investment and to provide each other with broader and more facilitated non-discriminatory market access.
Both sides underlined the importance of following international standards in intellectual property protection and enforcement. The two sides also committed to further strengthen exchanges and cooperation in the fields of education, tourism, mobility of researchers, culture, media, youth, and sport.
On global challenges, the EU and China underlined their strong commitment to implement the Paris Agreement to effectively provide a global response to the threat of climate change. They promised to assume greater leadership on the global environmental agenda.
On foreign affairs, EU and China committed to work together on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Africa, and Ukraine but only exchanged views on the situation in and around Myanmar.