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China, EU spar over way forward, as human rights, Russia and trade dominate farewell event for Brussels envoy

·4 min read

Chinese and European diplomats sparred over ways to manage fraught bilateral relations, as they gathered at a farewell event for the outgoing EU ambassador weeks ahead of a long-awaited, high-level trade dialogue.

China must resume dialogue on human rights and speak up over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, departing EU ambassador Nicolas Chapuis told guests at Friday's event at the bloc's embassy in Beijing.

Recalling his first visit to China in January 1979 and first diplomatic posting in Beijing the following year, Chapuis said bilateral relations had a lot of potential but the momentum had stalled.

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"Trade is increasingly unbalanced and European investors' confidence is hurt by repeated lockdowns, supply chain disruptions, and restricted international mobility due to China's zero-Covid policy", said Chapuis, whose four-year mission to Beijing ends later this month.

Wu Hongbo, China's special representative to Europe, did not respond to Chapuis' calls on Ukraine and human rights. Rather, he played up the prospects of cooperation on trade, biodiversity, climate change and coping with grain and energy crises, which would "inject more certainty and stability into a world in distress".

"Less reliance on China or even decoupling from China would not bring a solution to this problem," Wu said in response to Chapuis' concerns on the trade imbalance.

He also confirmed that a bilateral high-level economic and trade dialogue would be held later this month, but did not specify a date.

The Post reported earlier that Brussels proposed July 18 as one of the dates for the trade talks, which marked one of the few deliverables at the high-profile EU-China leaders' summit in April.

Their first bilateral summit in almost two years, which took place via video link on April 1, was labelled by the EU's chief diplomat Josep Borrell as "a dialogue of the deaf", with China refusing to discuss the war in Ukraine, human rights or other sticking points between the two sides.

"China cannot pretend to be a great power but close its eyes or cover its ears when it comes to a conflict that obviously makes it uncomfortable," Borrell had said at the time.

Chapuis noted that the EU-China summit had resulted in "a worrying gap" over the Ukraine crisis and called for remedies to reclaim the potential in bilateral ties.

Beijing has refrained from publicly condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine, blaming Western sanctions and the eastward expansion of the Nato security alliance for provoking Moscow.

"A demonstration of positive resolve to help the EU stop Russia's power politics would go a long way to build trust and alleviate the dangerous questioning of the rules-based international order that has benefited both the EU and China," Chapius said.

He also brought up China's rights record, saying: "I have a special thought for the Chinese human rights lawyers who have been prevented from exercising their noble cause for seven years as of tomorrow."

Saturday, July 9, marks the seventh anniversary of Beijing's crackdown on more than 200 human rights lawyers and activists nationwide, in a campaign dubbed the "709 crackdown".

Beijing and Brussels have seen tensions escalate in recent years over the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, human rights concerns, especially relating to Hong Kong and Xinjiang, as well as overseas Chinese investment projects and the stance on Taiwan.

Retaliatory sanctions over human rights last year stalled an ambitious investment deal despite seven years of marathon negotiations.

EU lawmakers are also mulling a ban on products from Xinjiang, to follow a sweeping US ban over Beijing's alleged human rights abuses against its mainly Muslim Uygur population. Beijing has repeatedly denied those allegations.

Calling on the EU to take a "positive, rational and pragmatic" approach to China policy, Wu urged the bloc to respect China's core interests and refrain from interference in its internal affairs, so as to safeguard "the political cornerstones" of bilateral relations.

"Megaphone diplomacy or imposing sanctions are of no help in handling disagreements," Wu said in closing his speech at Friday's event.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.