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EU foreign affairs chief travels to China to prepare end-of-the-year summit

Josep Borrell plans to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to discuss bilateral relations and address ‘the main regional and global challenges,’ including trade and the Ukraine war

Borrell China UE
The EU High Representative for Foreign Policy and Defense, Josep Borrell, and the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, at the Munich security conference on February 19.Ren Pengfei (Xinhua News / ContactoPhoto)

The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, landed in China on Thursday with an unusual number of open fronts: in addition to the already strained relationship between Brussels and Beijing, marked by Europe’s risk reduction strategy against the Asian giant and the differences over the war in Ukraine, the conflict in the Middle East now threatens to become another divisive wall in the polarized theater of world geopolitics. The head of European diplomacy is expected to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Friday to discuss these thorny global issues, co-chair the strategic dialogue between the EU and China, and iron out details ahead of a high-level summit between Brussels and Beijing scheduled for the end of the year.

“An important visit to discuss EU-China relations and the main regional and global challenges with government authorities, academics and business representatives,” said Borrell on social media as soon as he landed in the morning [local time] in Shanghai, the financial capital of the Asian giant. There he met part of the EU business community, which has been denouncing the difficulties of conducting business in an environment of growing uncertainty, in addition to the lack of reciprocity accessing the Chinese market. The former Spanish foreign minister also attended the Shanghai International Studies University, where he exchanged world views with Chinese academics.

Borrell was expected to leave for the Chinese capital on Friday, when he is scheduled to deliver a talk to students at Peking University and meet with his counterpart, Wang Yi. Topics on the agenda include possible progress towards peace talks in Ukraine after China offered itself as a possible facilitator of dialogue with the presentation in February of a document for the “political solution to the crisis,” to which the EU responded coldly at first due to Beijing’s proximity to Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning to make an official visit to China next week.

Borrell and Wang will also address, in all likelihood, the critical situation in the Middle East following the attack by the Islamist group Hamas on Israel and the response of the Israeli army with airstrikes on the Gaza Strip and the blockade of the territory. The new war has already claimed the lives of some 2,700 people.

Beijing, unlike Brussels and Washington, did not immediately come out to condemn the Hamas attack. The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Sunday without express condemnation, in which it called on the parties to “immediately put an end to hostilities,” denounced “the paralysis of the peace process” and stressed that the answer involves “implementing the two-state solution and establishing an independent state of Palestine.” On Tuesday, the Chinese special envoy for the Middle East, Zhai Jun, said that his country “opposes and condemns acts that harm the civilian population” and offered Beijing’s mediation for a ceasefire.

In June, during an official visit to China by the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the People’s Republic, Xi Jinping, assured that “justice must be done for Palestine as soon as possible” and proposed an independent Palestinian State as a solution based on the 1967 borders. At the same time, Beijing has cultivated its ties with Israel. In July, Xi conveyed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his intention to receive him in the Chinese capital later this year.

Borrell’s trip comes at a turbulent time, but it comes at last, after two previous attempts were canceled: the first, scheduled for April, was suspended after the head of European diplomacy tested positive for Covid; the second, scheduled for July, was postponed by the Chinese authorities when the then foreign minister of China, Qin Gang, went missing for a few days; he was fired shortly afterwards and his whereabouts remain unknown.

The visit by a high-ranking EU official adds to a diplomatic offensive by Brussels, which has sent several European commissioners on official trips to China in recent weeks despite a risk reduction strategy implemented by Brussels to avoid dependence on the Asian giant in critical sectors. In September, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced the start of an investigation into China’s alleged state subsidies for its electric vehicles. Beijing called the move “pure protectionism.”

Borrell has defended on numerous occasions the definition that the EU has agreed on for China as a “partner, a competitor and a systemic rival,” a triple condition that Brussels must calibrate based on the “China’s own behavior,” according to an article he wrote in May.

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