China has no intention of dividing the European Union – nor the capability to do so – a senior Chinese diplomat said on Wednesday, as Beijing strengthens its cooperation with a number of countries in central and eastern Europe while it remains locked in a protracted trade war with the US.

Wang Chao, China’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, was speaking at a Press Conference in Beijing to preview Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s Official visit to Europe next week to attend the China-EU leaders’ meeting in Brussels on April 9.

Li’s trip follows a visit last month by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Italy, Monaco, and France which included meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

A centrepiece of Xi’s visit was the signing up of Italy to Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative”  a move which raised eyebrows among EU leaders, including Juncker who has expressed concerns over China’s trade practices.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week also said that he was “saddened” about Italy’s signing up to the belt and road plan and warned that countries joining the scheme would “ultimately lose”.

But Wang dismissed the criticisms, saying “China has no intention, nor do we have the ability, to divide Europe”.

Beijing has engaged with 16 central and eastern European countries, including 11 EU member states and five Western Balkan countries in a grouping referred to as 16+1.

“The 16+1 is a platform that is based on equal and mutually beneficial cooperation … and will bring real benefits to China and Central European countries,” Wang said.

Following his Brussels engagement, Li will pay an official visit to Croatia where he will also attend a 16+1 leaders’ meeting on April 12, when agreements on infrastructure, trade, finance, education, and people-to-people exchange cooperation are expected to be signed.
Wang said the visits to Europe by Li and Xi underscored the importance attached by China to its relations with the region.

The European Union is currently rethinking its China strategy, with the European Commission last month labelling China a “systemic rival” and “economic competitor” in a policy paper.

When asked about China’s response to the European policy paper, Wang said the competition was “normal”.

“The EU policy paper and the related discussions show the importance Europe attaches to its relations with China. China also values its relations with Europe,” he said.

“Due to the differences in history, culture and our respective systems and stages of development, it’s inevitable that there will be differences. And, as we deepen our cooperation, there will be competition and we think it’s normal to have competition.

“We think that moderate and healthy market competition can contribute to our respective development … but cooperation is still the mainstay.”

The European bloc is struggling to present a united front in response to Beijing’s expanding influence in the region, in particular with issues such as the belt and road plan, and security concerns in dealing with China’s telecommunications giant Huawei.

Wang said Beijing was currently in talks with many countries in relation to the belt and road plan, and hoped European countries would create a good environment for cooperation instead of “targeting certain companies”  an indirect reference to Huawei.