China’s diplomacy has entered a game of hide and seek with the European Union in preparation for another virtual summit on September 13-14 between Xi Jinping and EU leaders - Ursula von der Leyen, Charles Michel and Angela Merkel, since Germany chairs the Council this semester.
One should first note that Beijing did not blink an eye after von der Leyen and Michel gave a blisteringly critical press conference on June 22, concluding another summit that ended without a joint communiqué. No answer from Beijing was probably the best short-term tactic, since the list of European grudges is so long. Although technical negotiations on a potential investment agreement deal have continued, there is little report of any progress – save perhaps on technology transfers: that is an issue where China fears new restrictions, and it is therefore mostly a Chinese ask, not a European one. Market access, subsidies and SOEs are issues on which there is no sign of China intending to budge. Meanwhile, of course, European public opinion has greatly soured on China, for reasons known to all: Xinjiang, Hong Kong, military posturing or violence against several Asian neighbors, the denial of responsibility on Covid-19 and a crude "mask diplomacy", the attacks or threats on several European governments – this year, it is the Czech Republic and United Kingdom’s turn, but a dispute with Sweden also lingers.
It is against this background that Foreign Minister Wang Yi has just concluded a tour of China’s four main export destinations in Europe – Italy, France, the Netherlands and Germany, with Norway, a non-EU country thrown in. Oddly, it is on the last day of this tour that another coming trip – this time by Yang Jiechi, Wang’s predecessor and now Politburo member in charge of foreign policy, was announced, reportedly to Greece and Spain.