Europe claimed a diplomatic win in the push for China to pursue fairer economic policies.
At a European Union-China summit on Tuesday in Brussels, the EU said a laboriously drafted joint statement signaled important Chinese concessions over curbing subsidies to domestic industries and facilitating market access for foreign companies.
The wording about the two issues helped salvage the leaders’ communique after the EU withdrew a veto threat, enabling both sides to show unity in the face of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” challenge to the multilateral order.
“We agreed with our Chinese partners to address the issue of industrial subsidies,” EU President Donald Tusk said at a press conference in the Belgian capital after the meeting. “It is a breakthrough. For the first time, China has agreed to engage with Europe on this key priority.”
Europe has sought to enlist Beijing’s help on numerous fronts as Trump has turned his back on international organizations and agreements that had counted on staunch U.S. support. The EU is China’s No. 1 trade partner, while the Chinese market is the second biggest for exports from the bloc after the U.S.
While pressing China to cut industrial subsidies and open up more to foreign investment, Europe is resisting protectionism by Trump and wary of his trade war against Beijing. The EU is also keen for Chinese action in the fight against climate change after the U.S. withdrew from a landmark international accord to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.
To date, Chinese words on fairer trade and investment policies haven’t always translated into actions. The EU has accused Chinese President Xi Jinping of failing to follow through on a high-profile market-opening pledge he made at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“We must deliver on what we promise,” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said on Tuesday at the press conference with Tusk. “The two sides will intensify work toward finding mutually agreeable solutions to a number of key barriers.”
In a policy paper on China last month, the EU described the country as a “cooperation partner” in some areas and a “systemic rival” in others. “This requires a flexible and pragmatic whole-of-EU approach enabling a principled defense of interests and values,” said the March 12 paper by the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Tuesday that both sides spent more than 50 hours over the past 10 days negotiating the joint statement.
“Today’s summit is a big step in the right direction, but commitments are only worth anything if we deliver on them and that is what we must do in the weeks and months ahead,” Juncker said.
The EU and China found a compromise over wording on efforts to bolster the World Trade Organization by enabling it to tackle industrial subsidies.
“The two sides reaffirm their joint commitment to co-operate on WTO reform to ensure its continued relevance and allow it to address global trade challenges,” the statement said. “To this end, both sides will intensify the discussions with the aim of strengthening international rules on industrial subsidies.”
On China’s treatment of foreign investors, the EU has been frustrated by the slow pace of talks with Beijing since 2013 on a bilateral investment accord that would scale back Chinese market barriers for European companies.
An investment agreement is an EU condition for starting negotiations with China on a free-trade accord. Both sides said on Tuesday said that a far-reaching investment deal could be reached in 2020.
“The high level of ambition will be reflected in substantially improved market access, the elimination of discriminatory requirements and practices affecting foreign investors, the establishment of a balanced investment protection framework and the inclusion of provisions on investment and sustainable development,” the statement said.
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