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China's Xi Jinping meets top EU officials in Beijing

Published December 7, 2023last updated December 7, 2023

The meeting was the first to be held in person between Xi and the EU's leaders in four years. The sides have clashed over trade and their differing stances on the war in Ukraine.

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China's President Xi Jinping receives European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel ahead of a summit in Beijing.
EU leaders Charles Michel (L) and Ursula von der Leyen (R) have met with Chinese President Xi Jinping (C)Image: Dario Pignatelli/European Council Press Service/AFP

European Union leaders met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Thursday for talks dominated by divisions between the EU and its largest economic partner.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, flanked by European Council President Charles Michel and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, said there were "clear imbalances and differences that we must address."

China and the EU have heightened diplomatic engagement this year, seeking to hasten recovery from the pandemic and repair ties. Several EU commissioners have visited Beijing to restart high-level dialogue.

The EU leaders also met China's No. 2 leader, Premier Li Qiang.

Need for balanced trade

The EU used the top-level discussions to call for a reduction in trade barriers for European companies.

Goods worth more than  €2 billion ($2.15 billion) are exchanged between China and the European Union every day, but the EU's trade deficit amounts to almost  €400 billion.

"I'm glad that we agreed with President Xi that trade should be balanced between the two of us," von der Leyen said.

"Politically, European leaders will not be able to tolerate that our industrial base is undermined by unfair competition. We like competition. It makes us better at lowest prices. It is good for the consumers. But competition needs to be fair," she added.

EU-China summit gets underway in Beijing

China is unhappy with EU restrictions on technology exports, and an EU investigation into subsidies for electric vehicles.

Xi called on both sides to use dialogue to settle differences, speaking out against what Beijing has seen as an increasingly competitive approach by the EU in its relations with China.

The two sides "should not regard each other as rivals because of different systems, reduce cooperation because of competition, and confront each other because of differences," he said, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

This is the final opportunity for both sides to meet in person before the European Parliament elections begin in 2024, which will mean a change in the bloc’s leadership.

"We have a complex relationship with China, which deserves frank and open discussions to deepen mutual understanding and this took place today," von der Leyen said.

The talks also broached more thorny areas, from human rights to Beijing's continued ties with Russia despite the latter's war in Ukraine.

Conflicts including Ukraine also on the agenda 

China had drawn criticism from the EU for taking a neutral stance on Russia's conflict in Ukraine.

The EU wants China to use its influence with Russia to end the invasion, ensure that exports from or via China are not aiding Russia's war effort and support Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's peace formula.

"We would like China to be more assertive," Michel said. "We would like China to be very clear they support the UN Charter and condemn this war caused by Russia against Ukraine."

However after the meeting of the leaders, Wang Lutong, director general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's European department, told a press briefing, Russia "is a very independent sovereign nation."

Dialogue on human rights, economic cooperation, people-to-people exchanges, open trade, the environment, food security and China's claim to Taiwan were also discussed, Wang said.

lo,tj,km/sms (AFP, Reuters)