Angela Merkel and her government are concerned about the growing number of cases in Germany and moves are afoot to change some laws. Photo: AFP/Michele Tantussi

PRAGUE – At the start of 2020, German Chancellor Angela Merkel thought this week she would be welcoming Chinese President Xi Jinping and the heads of other European governments for a major summit in Leipzig, her diplomatic swansong as she prepares to step down after 15 years in power and a moment for both sides to finally agree on terms on a much-vaunted investment pact.  

Instead, after a pandemic and worsening Europe-China relations, the only thing both sides could muster was a low-key videoconference between Merkel, Xi and two European Union (EU) leaders at which almost nothing seemed to be agreed on and the most important topics were danced around.  

European leaders were left a little dazed after Beijing started pumping out propaganda and disinformation as the pandemic swept through the continent in March, with many Chinese diplomats keen to mock what they saw as weak European responses to the virus.

Then came China’s imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong, the first violent clashes between Chinese and Indian troops for decades and a refocused campaign led by Washington to raise awareness about Beijing’s human rights violations against the Uighur population in Xinjiang province.

None of this was helped by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi undertaking a supposed charm offensive tour of five European capitals earlier this month, which can only be viewed as a failure.

His visit was dogged by his aggressive rebuke of a senior Czech politician’s official visit to Taiwan. Germany’s foreign minister was forced to come to the defense of his fellow European politician and criticized Wang for personally threatening the Czech official with retaliation.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s charm offensive did not end well. Photo: AFP/Handout/Anadolu Agency

A European Commission statement after the videoconference noted that while this investment pact was discussed, the “EU emphasized that more work was urgently needed on the issues of rebalancing market access and on sustainable development.”

The EU has been making this argument for almost three years, so nothing appears to have been moved further along the line by the talks. On the plus side, the EU is at least being consistent.

Indeed, back in January, the bloc’s former trade chief Phil Hogan warned that “meeting halfway will not work for the EU.” European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said as much after the video conference, telling reporters that “China has to convince us that it is worth having an investment agreement.”

She added: “We need China to move.”

The buzzword from the Europeans is “reciprocity”. They want Beijing to open up its markets as freely for European investors as European markets are for Chinese investors.

After months of ever-growing animosity, perhaps the best either side could hope for was a mundane and pedestrian videoconference on Monday in which almost nothing of importance appears to have been agreed, yet which allowed Europe’s most senior officials to touch base with the Chinese president.   

“Europe needs to be a player, not a playing field,” said European Council President Charles Michel following the videoconference. “Today’s meeting represents another step forward in forging a more balanced relationship with China.

“Real differences exist and we won’t paper over them. But we are ready to engage. Ready to cooperate where we can, and ready to roll up our sleeves to find concrete solutions,” he added. 

European Council President Charles Michel speaks during a joint press conference with European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen in Brussels on September 14, 2020. Photo: AFP/Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency

The only “landmark” outcome, according to a European Council press release, was that the EU and China both agreed to respect 100 products of “geographical indication.”

While this has been described as progress, it’s something of a damp squib considering that at the beginning of the year it seemed a real possibility pen would finally be put to paper on the EU-China investment deal, now in its seventh year of negotiation, at the now-postponed Leipzig conference this week.

One likely outcome of the videoconference is that enthusiasm over the investment pact is tempered once again and, more importantly, both sides understand that neither would benefit if a deal is rushed through in imperfect form.

But arguably the most important development to come out of the videoconference is the sense that, for almost the first time in Europe-China relations, both sets of leaders are now fundamentally talking to their own sides.

The language used in post-conference briefings by the two EU leaders as well as Merkel sought to reinforce the view of the Europeans now being more assured in themselves, demanding more action from Beijing and increasingly focusing on values in their foreign policy.

An EU statement after the videoconference noted the bloc’s concerns over the Hong Kong situation and “escalating tensions in the South China Sea.” Neither the Uighurs nor Xinjiang were mentioned specifically in the statement, only Beijing’s “treatment of ethnic and religious minorities.”

Michel, the European Council president, suggested when talking to reporters that Xi was supportive of allowing European diplomats into the far western province of Xinjiang, though Merkel’s post-conference comments made Xi’s assurances sound less convincing.

All of this is no doubt intended to impress the scholars, journalists and critical politicians on the continent who have alleged the EU is too soft on China and lacks the confidence to press for European interests.  

As for Chinese President Xi, he was equally keen to impress upon his own people that he was as assertive as possible during the talks and no relationship with Europe would diminish either China’s economic position or its own sovereignty.

“There is no universal path for human rights development, and no single best way to protect human rights,” Xi reportedly told the EU leaders, according to Chinese media reports.

“I believe Europe could find good solutions to its own problems. China doesn’t accept a lecturer on human rights.”