China's Li Keqiang heading to Europe to forge closer ties

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will attend the 21st China-European Union Summit in Brussels on April 9, where he will meet European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will attend the 21st China-European Union Summit in Brussels on April 9, where he will meet European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. PHOTO: REUTERS

Premier's trip just after Xi's comes amid global uncertainties, trade war with US

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will make a five-day trip to Europe next week, as Beijing continues to forge closer ties with the continent amid global uncertainties and a trade war with the US.

Mr Li will attend the 21st China-European Union Summit in Brussels next Tuesday, when he will meet European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

This will be followed by a summit of China and Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) in Dubrovnik, Croatia, Foreign Affairs Vice-Minister Wang Chao said yesterday. Mr Li's trip comes barely a fortnight after President Xi Jinping ended a three-nation European tour, which took him to Italy, Monaco and France. Mr Wang said the trips show the importance China attaches to relations with Europe.

Noting that both leaders made Europe their first destination for overseas trips this year, Mr Wang said China and the EU were aligned in global outlook, and should deepen political and economic cooperation.

"We hope that, building on our existing consensus, we can produce positive outcomes in areas like jointly promoting global governance and building an open world economy... upholding consensus on multilateralism and at the same time strengthening coordination and cooperation on World Trade Organisation reform," he said.

Mr Xi's tour last month appeared to soothe European concerns about China's growing global influence, which was captured in a European Commission policy paper that branded it a "systemic rival" to the EU in some aspects.

During his trip, Italy became the first founding EU member to sign on to China's Belt and Road Initiative, while deals worth billions were sewn up, including a US$35 billion (S$47 billion) agreement between China and European jetmaker Airbus.

 
 

But, on Monday, Mr Juncker stepped up criticism of China's trade practices, and said Chinese investments on the continent could make it harder for the EU to agree on foreign policy.

"One country isn't able to condemn Chinese human rights policy because Chinese investors are involved in one of their ports," he told lawmakers. "It can't work like this."

Criticism has also been directed at the China-CEEC initiative, better known as 16+1 as it includes 11 EU member states and five aspiring EU member states. EU officials had previously accused China of turning CEEC countries into Trojan horses and undermining the grouping's ability to speak with one voice.

But Mr Wang dismissed such accusations as groundless, saying that Beijing has neither the intention nor the capability to divide Europe.

"Our cooperation with the 16 countries is based on the goal of propelling the continued development of all the 16 countries, especially given that the 16 countries are not at an equal level of development," he said.

He pointed to fast-growing two-way trade between China and the 16 countries last year as proof that the 16+1 cooperation "on the contrary facilitates the European integration process in a more sound manner".

 
 

A sore point among some of the 16 countries was a growing trade deficit with China, but this has shrunk in recent years.

Trade between China and CEEC grew 20.9 per cent last year to US$82.23 billion, while imports by China grew at an even faster pace of 24.6 per cent, Mr Wang noted.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2019, with the headline 'China's Li heading to Europe to forge closer ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe