The European Union and China held their first in-person summit since the COVID pandemic in Beijing, in a bid to rekindle a straddled relationship due to different views on several topics from trade imbalance to the war in Ukraine, while Italy decided to drop out of the Belt and Road Initiative.
The meeting was most likely the last the current EU leadership will have with Xi Jinping, as European elections scheduled for May 2024 may cause a change at the top. Both sides downplayed the meeting, that ended without a joint statement. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell made the visit.
Xi said that the bloc and China “should not regard each other as rivals because of different systems, reduce cooperation because of competition, and confront each other because of differences,” according to state broadcaster CCTV, while von der Leyen reminded that despite being the EU’s most important trading partner, “there are clear imbalances and differences that we must address.”
One big topic of contention is Russia. China kept a neutral stance on the war in Ukraine, but the EU is urging them to speak with Russia to end the conflict and to stop export of European-made dual-use items to Russia.
Also, the EU is asking for better market access of products for its member states and to find a way address the annual trade imbalance between the two sides. The EU said on other occasions that its near 400 billion euro trade deficit with China is due to restrictions on EU business.
During this low-key summit, Italy officially bailed out of the Belt and Road Initiative. The country signed with great fanfare in 2019, the first and only G7 country to adhere to Beijing’s plans for global trade. In the hopes of then government chaired by Giuseppe Conte, the Belt and Road Initiative was to help increase trade with China and getting investments for infrastructure projects. However, these hopes remained unfulfilled.
The spokesperson of China’s foreign ministry Wang Wenbin implied that Italy was forced out of the initiative by outside actors. “China firmly opposes smearing and undermining cooperation in building the Belt and Road and opposes stoking bloc confrontation and divisions,” he said at a daily briefing.