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EU-China summit inches trade deal forward amid human-rights tensions

Jill Petzinger
·Germany Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
Chinese President  Xi Jinping (top L), European Council President Charles Michel (top R), European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (bottom R) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (bottom L) are seen in split screen on a monitor during the EU-China summit on September 14, 2020, in Brussels. Photo: Yves Herman/AFP via Getty Images
Chinese President Xi Jinping (top L), European Council President Charles Michel (top R), European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (bottom R) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (bottom L) are seen in split screen on a monitor during the EU-China summit on September 14, 2020, in Brussels. Photo: Yves Herman/AFP via Getty Images

German chancellor Angela Merkel was supposed to be hosting the Chinese president and the heads of 27 EU states for a three-day conference in Leipzig this month, before the summit was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead the German leader, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, and Chinese president Xi Jinping held a much shorter video-conference, touching on trade, climate action, coronavirus vaccine cooperation, and the big issue of human rights in China.

The goal of Leipzig summit was to finalise the EU-China investment treaty, which has been dragging on for years. Overall, the EU wants a fair, level playing field for its companies and investors doing business in the Chinese market.

“Now we have agreement on three important issues,” von der Leyen said at a press conference after the video-meeting. “First of all, on the disciplines regarding the behaviours of state-owned enterprises, then on technology transfer, and on transparency on subsidies.”

“However I want to caution that a lot still remains to be done, in other important and difficult chapters of the agreement, particularly in two areas: market access and sustainable development,” she added.

Human rights dialogue

Pressure has been increasing on the German government, currently in the middle of its six-month presidency of the European Council (EC), to take a stronger stand against China over its human-rights abuses — in particular, the detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province, and Beijing’s new security law cracking down on free speech in Hong Kong.

“The national security law for Hong Kong continues to raise great concerns,” Charles Michel said in a press conference after the summit today.

“Democratic voices in Hong Kong should be heard, rights protected, and autonomy preserved.

“We called on China to keep their promises to the people of Hong Kong, we reiterated our concerns over China’s treatment of minorities in Xinjiang in Tibet and the treatment of human rights defenders and journalists,” he added.

Asked if China would take any notice of the EU’s human-rights concerns, Merkel said: “We will see what comes out of it” and that Xi had offered that envoys may be able to visit Xinjiang province and that there would be an ongoing human-rights dialogue.

“That does not mean that there was agreement about these issues,” she added.

Ahead of today’s meeting, some members of the European parliament sent a jointly signed letter to Merkel, Michel, and von der Leyen calling for “targeted sanctions and asset freezes against Chinese officials responsible for polities violating human rights.”

“The upcoming EU-China summit represents an ideal opportunity to match the EU’s rhetoric regarding human rights violations in China with concrete action,” the MEPs wrote.

However, Germany has long been cautious when it comes to criticising Beijing, and has often been accused of prioritising trade with China over human rights issues, and naively believing it could affect change through trade. China is Germany’s largest trading partner, with trade volume between the two nations €206bn (£189.9bn, $244.8bn) last year.

While the UK has banned Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from the buildout of its 5G network, Germany permitted the company to join the 5G supplier auctions.

China had made its thoughts clear on the topic in December 2019, when its ambassador to Germany, Ken Wu, said during an interview that “there will be consequences” if Germany decides to exclude Huawei from its telecoms market.

In what appeared to be a threat of retaliation, Wu pointed out that out of the 28 million cars sold in China last year, 7 million were German.

READ MORE: China's Huawei banned from UK 5G network

Germany is rethinking its heavy economic reliance on China. The foreign office announced a new “Indo-pacific” strategy at the beginning of September, outlining how it will focus on developing closer ties with democracies, such as South Korea, India, and Japan.

"We want to help shape [the future global order] so that it is based on rules and international cooperation, not on the law of the strong," said German foreign minister Heiko Maas. "That is why we have intensified cooperation with those countries that share our democratic and liberal values."