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Expectations Lowered Ahead of Europe-China Summit

FILE - European Council President Charles Michel takes part in a virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Brussels, Belgium, June 22, 2020.
FILE - European Council President Charles Michel takes part in a virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Brussels, Belgium, June 22, 2020.

The European Union and China hold talks Monday with hopes to strike a trade and investment deal by the year’s end. Several issues pose potential hurdles, though, from human rights and climate concerns to the outcome of November’s U.S. election.

Expectations for the summit have already been notched down. It was supposed to be a face-to-face meeting in Leipzig, Germany, between Chinese President Xi Jinping and the 27 European Union leaders. Because of coronavirus concerns, it has now turned into virtual, downsized talks between just Xi, top EU officials and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, which holds the bloc's rotating presidency.

The two sides still hope to reach an agreement this year on a deal granting greater investment in and access to each other's markets.

But as European Council President Charles Michel pointed out during previous EU-China talks in June, there are key areas the two global powers do not agree on. He noted European concerns on issues such as human rights, climate change and cyberattacks.

Indeed, Reuters news agency suggested Monday's talks may result in only a modest agreement for now on protecting regional food designations on products such as Irish whisky and Chinese bean paste.

"What’s at stake here is the EU-China relationship is not in really fantastic shape at the moment," he said.

Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations policy institute, says “the situation in Hong Kong, the situation in Xinjiang, plus the economic situation that hasn’t improved over the last few years, plus COVID — has really created a lot of concern in Europe at the future relationship with China.”

She’s referring to European concerns about China’s treatment of minority Uighurs, and its policies toward Hong Kong, including the controversial new national security law. On the economic side, Europe wants greater market access, intellectual property rights protection and climate change commitments from Beijing.

U.S.-China tensions also form part of the backdrop for the talks. Observers say China, in response, seeks a closer relationship with the EU while Europe is wary of becoming a battleground for the American and Chinese governments.

Oertel says the U.S. presidential election, pitting former Vice President Joe Biden against President Donald Trump, will influence the next steps for Beijing and Brussels.

“Under a Trump presidency, the outlook for transatlantic cooperation and coordination on China is not great, because of the way the Trump administration has so far dealt with its allies,” she said.

By contrast, she says, Brussels and Washington may cooperate more closely in responding to China under a Biden presidency.

For now, experts say, EU member states are divided over how to deal with China —whether to adopt a tougher or softer approach moving forward.