“China and Europe are both partners for win-win economic cooperation and contributors to world peace and stability,” wrote Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in the German newspaper Handelsblatt ahead of a summit this week aimed at solidifying ties.
There have been concerns in Brussels that trade and investment tensions, as well as criticism over minority rights such as the Uighur Muslims in the country’s Xinjiang province, may culminate in a failure to agree on a joint declaration following the April 9 summit. Such a failure to find a consensus could hamper European attempts to gain further access to Chinese markets.
In the article, Mr Li praised Europe as being “an advocate of openness” and a “pacesetter in developing relations with New China.”
The article is seen as an attempt by the Premier to allay concerns that China has been trying to split the EU by investing in the eastern European nations as part of the country’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). He said the eastern investment “conducive to more balanced development and unity of the EU and serves as a useful complement to China-EU relations.”
“We firmly support the European integration process and welcome a united and prosperous Europe. Such a position will remain unchanged no matter how the situation may evolve. We have every confidence in the future of Europe and in deepening cooperation between our two sides,” wrote Mr Li.
The EU has been keen to persuade Beijing to open up its market amid concerns over potential Chinese dominance of strategic European industries. Brussels has, for some time, tried to convince China to committing to removing trade barriers that it sees as unfair.
An unnamed EU source said that China “has always made the same comment but the facts presented themselves differently.”
There has also been criticism in Europe of Chinese dealings with individual EU states. This criticism has been ramped up following the signing of a memorandum by China and Italy on the BRI, a move which caused consternation in France and Germany, as well as the US.
The Chinese takeover by the Cosco group in 2016 of the Greek port of Piraeus, soon to be the busiest port in the Mediterranean, has also raised eyebrows.
Chinese investment projects in the Balkans are also being closely watched by Brussels. Last week, the parliament in Bosnia and Herzegovina agreed on a loan of €614-million for a large energy project involving China.
Another deal being heavily scrutinised by the EU is the signing of a memorandum between the China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group and the Croatian Railway Infrastructure on the joint establishment of a transport corridor, which China intends to use to lessen the time needed to move goods between Mediterranean ports and central Europe.
Recently an EU spokesperson said that Brussels had “concerns over the socioeconomic and financial effects some of China’s investments can have” in the Balkan states, adding: “there is the risk of macroeconomic imbalances and debt dependency.”
Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a stop to “naivety” in Europe over its handling of China. Meanwhile, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has spoken out over the failure by some EU member states to condemn Chinese human rights abuses.
Mr Li reiterated China’s willingness to work in close cooperation with Europe over issues such as the Paris Climate Agreement, the fight against terrorism, the nuclear deal with Iran and offering support to sustainable development.
The EU, as a bloc, is China’s largest trading partner. Increases in recent years of Chinese takeovers in critical European sectors, as well as the feeling amongst politicians and diplomats in Brussels that China has not kept its promise to adhere to principles of free trade has created tension prior to the summit.
Mr Li finished his article with a call for cooperation and unity: “According to a European proverb, ‘Those who work alone, add; those who work together, multiply.’ The trend of world development calls on us to make timely and concerted efforts to promote openness and mutually beneficial cooperation. This is what we should do: delivering more benefits to our peoples and making greater contribution to peace, stability and development in the world.”