While China had declared 2020 a critical year for relations with Europe, the EU-China virtual summit which took place on September 14 between Chinese president Xi Jinping and EU leaders German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council head Charles Michel, and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen fell short of expectations. Some Europeans were optimistically hoping to conclude the negotiations on the long-awaited Common Agreement on Investment, which have now dragged into their seventh year. Others in Brussels were relieved that the summit didn’t take place in Leipzig in the presence of the twenty-eight leaders (twenty-seven EU countries and China) as was originally planned by Germany, the holder of the six-month rotating presidency. In the end, despite statements about what has been achieved in the meeting by European leaders—addressing Chinese state aid and addressing technology transfers from Europe to China—the actual outcome had little substance. In particular, China did not agree on economic reciprocity—the primary demand from the European side.
The meeting—although depicted as a decisive diplomatic victory by Chinese state media—was especially disappointing to Chinese leadership considering they were trying to accomplish larger geostrategic goals. One was to prevent the creation of a united transatlantic front against China, spurred on by recent visits to Western and Central Europe by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. Rejecting any kind of strategic alignment either in the direction of the United States or China, President Charles Michel told reporters afterward “Europe is a player, not a playing field.” The second broad Chinese goal was to reassure Europeans after souring relations this year after coronavirus. Still reeling from the pandemic, the accompanying economic recession, and now—what many perceive to be an opportunistic expansion of Chinese aggression—Europe has recently channeled pain and anger into pushback on contentious foreign policy issues against China, mainly on Huawei (5G) and Hong Kong, but also on the treatment by the PRC of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang.