China's Li Keqiang says EU is a partner, despite tensions

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang expressed optimism. PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS/BEIJING (REUTERS) - China and the European Union are more partners than competitors, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said on Monday (June 22), as the two sides held their first formal talks since ties soured over accusations that Beijing has spread disinformation about the novel coronavirus.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel - the EU's chief executive and chairman - held a video conference with Li, to be followed by another with President Xi Jinping.

Mr Li expressed optimism, according to Chinese state media.

The European Union, which has called Beijing a systemic rival, has been negotiating an investment agreement with China since 2014, with both sides expressing a desire last year to conclude talks in 2020.

EU officials say they want to see movement in areas such as autos, biotech and micro-electronics and clear up issues from state subsidies to forced technology transfers. Brussels says EU markets are largely open, so it is for China to move most.

"What is needed to break the deadlock is engagement at high political level and that is what today's summit will hopefully provide," a European Commission official said.

Summits typically produce joint statements, but none is expected from Monday's meeting.

Mr Li said China was willing to deepen cooperation with the EU on developing a Covid-19 vaccine and treatment.

EU officials say China has sought to pressure EU countries that criticise its handling of the novel coronavirus, using social media to spread fake reports of European neglect of Covid-19 patients. Beijing has denied wrongdoing.

Even before the pandemic, the two trading partners had differences, including over Hong Kong and the investment pact.

The EU has also faced US pressure to take a tougher stance on China. The bloc is caught between the two powers - needing both and reluctant to alienate either.

EU governments have expressed "great concerns" over China's security law for Hong Kong, which democracy activists, diplomats and some businesses say will jeopardise its semi-autonomous status and role as a global financial hub.

"We expressed our great concerns about the proposed national security law for Hong Kong," Mr Michel said after the talks.

China's parliament reacted angrily on Saturday to a resolution by the EU assembly protesting against the security law.

Mr Michel also said China needed to engage in WTO reform and open up its market to the EU more to rebalance what he said was their uneven trading relationship.

Germany has postponed an EU leaders' summit with Mr Xi in September, citing the coronavirus, though diplomats said it was in part because of the impasse in investment negotiations.

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