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EU-China Investment Talks Near Completion, Raising Concerns

This photo taken on December 24, 2020 shows a vendor offering drinks to a customer at a Christmas-themed market outside of a shopping mall complex on Christmas Eve in Shanghai. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT
This photo taken on December 24, 2020 shows a vendor offering drinks to a customer at a Christmas-themed market outside of a shopping mall complex on Christmas Eve in Shanghai. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT

The European Union agreement with Britain on how to handle affairs post-Brexit has been widely celebrated, yet another of the bloc’s tentative deals – that of a comprehensive investment agreement with China – is creating new headaches for European leaders.

The negotiations between the EU and China are being closely watched in Washington, as elsewhere.

The EU and China are in their seventh year of talks aimed at a comprehensive investment treaty. Last week, reports surfaced that the 27-nation bloc, currently led by Germany, had entered the final stage of negotiations with Beijing, with a goal of concluding the pact by the end of 2020.

Those reports have caught the attention of Jake Sullivan, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for national security adviser.

“The Biden-Harris administration would welcome early consultations with our European partners on our common concerns about China's economic practices,” Sullivan said in a tweet on Dec. 21, citing a Reuters story with the headline, “China, EU aim for investment pact by year-end.”

Sullivan’s choice of words – such as “early consultations,” “European partners,” and “common concerns” – has been read by analysts as signaling frustration within the incoming administration that EU leaders are not showing a serious intent to work with the United States.

A key message the Biden team has been its commitment to reverse President Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine and work more closely with U.S. allies to confront common challenges.

“Any agreement now would be a slap in the face to the Biden team given Sullivan's comment,” Stephen F. Szabo, a senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, said in an interview with VOA.

“They [the EU] have been critical of the Trump approach of trade wars with both China and the EU simultaneously, arguing that the U.S. needs the EU to have a joint Western approach, something which is essential to a successful Western policy,” Szabo said.

“If China splits the West, it can pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy,” he added.

Kasper Zeuthen, an EU spokesperson in Washington, told VOA this week that “the EU-China investment talks are intensive. Progress has been achieved in a number of areas. There are still some important outstanding matters and talks are continuing this week. The EU remains committed to the end-of-year deadline for conclusion of the negotiations, provided we have a deal worth having. We will not put speed over substance.”

On Friday, Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, said at a routine news briefing held in Beijing that China will “conduct negotiations with external parties in accordance with its own pace” while “striving to achieve a comprehensive, balanced, high-quality investment treaty with the EU.”

Wang’s remarks reiterated a similar statement released less than 24 hours earlier by China’s Commerce Department.

The latest remarks made in Beijing were picked up by news media and China-EU-U.S. watchers.

In the days leading up to the talked-about conclusion of negotiations between the EU and Beijing, a group of EU scholars issued a strongly worded joint statement opposing any such deal.

“Why the fast track, the hurry, and the sidestepping of a public debate, why play into China's hand? What message is Europe, so proud of its deepening integration, so talkative about its open strategic autonomy, so insistent on its respect for values, sending to the rest of the world? Member states should think twice,” urged a large group of prominent scholars specializing in EU-China-U.S. ties.

“This has been a year in which China has rescinded its international treaty over Hong Kong. It has been a year during which China clashed on the border with India, engaged in military coercion of Taiwan, and economic coercion against Australia,” the group of French, German, Italian, Czech, Polish, Belgian, Dutch, Greek and Slovakian scholars wrote.

“From Beijing's perspective, having the EU sign an investment treaty after this sequence of events and in the phase of power transition in the U.S., amounts to a strong endorsement of its political trajectory, if not an encouragement to behave more assertively.”

One of the signers, Mathieu Duchâtel, an analyst at the French think tank Institut Montaigne, tweeted on Thursday, “What China would have gained strategically: the neutralization of Europe as a values-oriented international player and as a transatlantic partner.”