European Council chief to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing as bloc seeks to recalibrate ties

European Council President Charles Michel will travel to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping next month, a trip that is expected to signal changes to how the European Union handles its ties with Beijing.

Michel will visit Beijing on December 1 to meet Xi and other senior Chinese officials, according to a senior EU official. He will not stay in the Chinese capital overnight.

The trip was first reported by the Financial Times. It will be the first meeting between Xi and a European Council president in China since 2018.

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The trip comes as the European Union reassesses its approach towards China amid concerns that the bloc has too much economic reliance on Beijing.

China is facing greater scrutiny from the West over human rights issues, and its investments in critical infrastructure overseas have sparked national security concerns.

Xi slams tech restrictions, urges G20 members to be inclusive

The Ukraine war has amplified European wariness towards China, as some see Beijing as siding with Russia for refusing to condemn Moscow over the invasion.

Chinese and European leaders have stepped up engagement in recent months. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Beijing earlier this month, which saw the two nations agree to boost ties.

However, the trip generated a backlash in Germany amid criticism that Berlin is too economically dependent on China.

Xi also met other EU leaders during the Group of 20 summit last week in Bali, including French President Emmanuel Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. Chinese officials and European leaders have expressed concerns over the China-US rivalry in Europe.

Macron, speaking at the Apec CEO forum in Bangkok, called the struggle for supremacy between China and the United States “a big risk and a big challenge”.

Macron said intensifying confrontation between the two nations had forced some countries to pick a side.

“We do not believe in hegemony, we do not believe in confrontation, we believe in stability,” he said.

China’s Xi urges return to ‘stable’ US ties in brief talks with Kamala Harris

At the G20 summit, Michel said that the EU needed to rebalance ties with China. Speaking in the European Parliament this week, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said the bloc will not follow the US’ toughest policies on China.

“Certainly, the United States are our most important ally, but, in some cases, we will not be in the same position or on the same approach towards China,” Borrell said on Wednesday, adding that Washington’s “drastic reduction of China’s access” to technology is a “decision that has to be taken into account”.

Borrell will travel to Washington next week for talks on China with his US counterparts.

Michel’s visit – his first to Beijing as European Council President – is expected to cover the full gamut of EU-China relations, from market access and human rights, to sanctions and climate cooperation.

As council president, his role is to represent the views of each of the EU’s 27 member states - a broad church when it comes to China, ranging from hawks such as Lithuania to doves in Hungary.

It will come days before Brussels finalises the renewal of sanctions on four Chinese government officials for their involvement in alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang - charges denied by Beijing.

The Belgian will undoubtedly use the trip to ask China to use its influence on Russia to help end the war in Ukraine.

Earlier this month, a video address pre-recorded by Michel that called on Beijing to lean on Moscow was pulled from the opening ceremony of a major trade expo in Shanghai without explanation.

“China has a role in using its influence to stop Russia’s brutal war ... through your so-called ‘no-limits’ partnership with Russia. You, China, can help put an end to this,” Michel was mooted to say.

The speech also referred to the EU’s desire to reduce its trade dependency on the world’s second largest economy.

Nonetheless, in recent weeks major EU members have shown a desire to re-engage with China, after a period of unprecedented geopolitical turbulence. Macron confirmed last week that he will travel to Beijing early next year.

Political analysts pointed to a thawing in bilateral relations, but warned that European leaders should not expect to bring about change on China.

“The sudden cacophony between leaders who are all heading for Beijing, the virtues that we are trying to find again in the Chinese government - climatic role, influence on Moscow, partner ‘trusted and reliable’ ... on the contrary, show Xi Jinping that far from backing down, he can now choose to move forward,” wrote François Godement, adviser for Asia at the Institut Montaigne, a French think tank.

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