Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and EU institution leaders meet in Brussels on Tuesday for an annual EU-China summit set to be overshadowed by differences over trade and investment.
After years of offering free access to its markets, the European Union has said it is losing patience with Beijing over the slowness of its market liberalisation. It also has growing concerns over state-led Chinese companies’ dominance of some EU markets and acquisitions of strategic industries.
That newly assertive stance has made it difficult to agree a final summit declaration, a staple of such high-level gatherings, which this year the EU sees as way of setting down in writing Chinese promises to open up to European investors.
EU and Chinese negotiators agreed a tentative draft statement on Tuesday morning, four EU diplomats said. But any final communique needs the sign-off of Li, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council chief Donald Tusk.
Diplomats said a new draft included fresh commitments by Beijing to speed up talks on a decade-long effort to reach an investment pact, as well as text on industrial subsidies and opening China’s market more broadly to European companies.
Like the United States, many EU countries want to crack down on industrial subsidies and forced technology transfers, although they prefer dialogue to the trade war Washington has triggered.
“The old narrative is absolutely obsolete,” Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen told Reuters.
One diplomat said an EU leaders’ summit in March had helped to forge a more unified European position that was paying off, adding there was a greater awareness of China’s policy of pushing free trade only when it suited its interests.
China denies seeking to dominate strategic European industries and has repeatedly said it wants a “win-win” relationship of mutual benefit.
The European Commission set out a 10-point action plan last month, seeing scope for greater cooperation in fields such as climate change, but demanding greater reciprocity, such as access for EU firms to Chinese public tenders.
“China aims to have a feel-good summit, whereas we aim to have a meaningful summit, with a meaningful outcome,” Peter Berz, acting Asia director at the Commission’s trade section, told the European Parliament last week.
China points to a new foreign investment law due to take effect at the start of 2020. It includes provisions to ban forced technology transfers and ensure foreign companies have access to public tenders.
EU officials say the law lacks detail, and question how effective it will really be in protecting foreign firms.
Li wrote in a German newspaper on Monday that China wanted to work with the European Union on issues including trade, and denied Beijing was trying to split the bloc by investing in eastern European states.