Virtual event takes place amid intense communication since start of outbreak
As the 22nd China-European Union leaders' meeting is set to be held via videoconference on Monday, observers said the two major global players could use the first official meeting between Chinese leaders and the new EU leadership to forge an even closer relationship amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
President Xi Jinping is to meet with European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen through video link. Premier Li Keqiang will co-chair the virtual meeting with Michel and von der Leyen.
The meeting, which was scheduled to be held in Beijing in March but postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, comes as China and the EU commemorate the 45th anniversary of diplomatic ties this year. It also takes place amid intensive communication and cooperation between China and EU members since the novel coronavirus epidemic started.
Xi has been maintaining good communication with leaders of European countries through telephone talks or correspondence over the past months.
In a telephone conversation on June 3 with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country will take over the EU's rotating presidency in the second half of this year, Xi reaffirmed China's commitment to stepping up the planned political agenda it has with Germany and the EU.
He said China stands ready to strengthen strategic cooperation with the EU in upholding multilateralism, tackling global challenges and providing certainty to an uncertain world, and taking the relationship to new levels. Xi also expressed similar views in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron on June 5.
Feng Zhongping, vice-president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said the intensive interaction between China and the EU has sent an important message that cooperation remains the overarching principle in their ties despite differences.
This message is crucially important not only to bilateral relations, but also to the recovery of the world economy in the post-COVID-19 period, Feng said.
The pandemic has brought China and Europe closer together, which has been demonstrated by the mutual support and aid between China and the EU and its members. They are stepping up cooperation on diagnostics, treatment, pharmaceuticals and vaccine development, as well as regular exchanges of information and expertise.
China recently launched a fast-track service for personnel exchanges with Germany and several other countries to facilitate business cooperation and the reopening of economic activity and to ensure industrial and supply chains remain secure and stable.
During the 10th round of China-EU high-level strategic dialogue held via video link on June 9, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed that China and the EU are long-term comprehensive strategic partners, not systemic rivals.
Speaking of the 45 years of diplomatic ties, Wang said China and the EU enjoy more cooperation than competition, and more common understanding than disagreement.
Ding Chun, director of the Center for European Studies at Fudan University, said the EU is reassessing the world and its position and policy, including relations with China, given the challenges posed to the EU's battered economy by the pandemic, rising populism in some member states, the quitting of the global system by the United States, growing tension between China and the US and the narrowing economic and technological gap between China and the EU.
"In such a complex situation, the 22nd China-EU leaders' meeting could not come at a better time in deepening mutual understanding and pursuing mutually beneficial win-win cooperation," he said.
The EU leadership has said that it does not want to have to choose sides between China and the US, but instead would use its own interests and values as a compass.
"China is playing an ever-growing role in global politics, and we have great interest in working together on many issues where its role is essential, from pandemic recovery to climate change and sustainable connectivity," EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell wrote in a blog last week. "All this and more forms a big, positive agenda for EU-China cooperation."
Borrell, a former Spanish foreign minister, described EU-China relations as "unavoidably complex and multifaceted". He said that the EU also wants to work with China on issues in which they have not reached agreement, but where negotiations can produce good outcomes for both sides.
Merkel, widely regarded as the mentor of von der Leyen, a former German defense minister, last year proposed a summit between top leaders from China and all EU member states to be held in Leipzig in September during Germany's EU presidency.
She had hoped that China and the EU could wrap up their negotiations on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment before the summit, but the Leipzig meeting is now postponed due to COVID-19.
Experts said that the China-EU agreement on investment is also expected to be a major topic at Monday's virtual meeting. The two sides have held 29 rounds of talks since 2014, including several rounds via videoconference during the pandemic.
Zhang Ming, head of the Chinese Mission to the EU, said on Thursday that China's political commitment to concluding a high-level and balanced investment agreement will not change despite the postponement of the Leipzig summit.
He emphasized that we need both sides to work it out. "Only in this way can we get over the thorny issues and reach agreement."
While the EU expects more market access to China, Beijing has voiced deep concerns over the EU's moves to step up scrutiny of foreign investment, especially from China.
Bernard Dewit, chairman of the Belgian-Chinese Chamber of Commerce, said on Friday that the conclusion of the investment agreement this year "would be more than welcome".
In terms of the international landscape, both China and the EU welcome a multipolar world, support economic globalization and seek greater democracy in international relations.
Both advocate multilateralism, and are committed to safeguarding the United Nations-centered international system, the international order underpinned by international law, and the World Trade Organization-centered multilateral trading system.
Shada Islam, an EU commentator and former director of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe, a Brussels-based think tank, said it's good news for the new EU top political team to meet Chinese leaders for the first time.
"Both China and the EU must reiterate their commitment to multilateralism and maintaining free trade. The world is watching," she said.