ECONOMY

Wen Jiabao

Wen Jiabao to meet EU amid debt crisis, solar row

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2012, 12:42pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao meets Europe’s leaders this week as the world’s second-biggest economy faces headwinds from the continent’s debt crisis and amid tensions over trade.

Wen will be attending the China-EU Summit on Thursday in Brussels and plans to meet European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, according to the Chinese government.

Beijing has expressed worry about Europe’s debt crisis causing instability in the global economy, with Chinese growth slowing significantly since last year, partially as weakening demand overseas has dented exports.

But Wen told visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel last month that despite “serious concerns”, Beijing was willing to continue investing in euro zone sovereign debt markets “on condition of fully evaluating the risks”.

He also said China was ready to strengthen communication and discussion with the EU, the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and key countries to support indebted euro zone nations.

Europeans have expressed hope that China could deploy some of its trove of about US$3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves – the largest in the world – to invest in EU bailout funds.

Wen’s visit comes with the European debt situation showing some improvement recently after the ECB announced this month a bold plan to buy unlimited sovereign bonds to hold down borrowing costs or under-pressure economies.

A ruling by Germany’s Constitutional Court clearing the country’s participation in the European Stability Mechanism bailout fund has also fuelled optimism.

Thomas Koenig, London-based China programme coordinator with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said he would be looking to see if the crisis had eased sufficiently for the EU to assume a more robust stance towards Beijing.

“With China, it’s always important to emphasise reciprocal engagement,” Koenig said, adding he was hoping for a “little more candid assessment of the situation” in the relationship.

However a potential cloud over Wen’s visit is a trade dispute over the increasingly competitive solar energy sector.

Earlier this month, the EU decided to investigate claims by a group of more than 20 European solar panel manufacturers that competing Chinese products were being sold below cost.

The Chinese government criticised the decision, saying restrictions to trade had the potential to harm both sides. Chinese solar companies also expressed worries about potential harm to the industry as a whole.

China exported almost US$36 billion-worth of solar products last year, more than 60 per cent of them to the EU, according to Chinese industry figures, while the country imported US$7.5 billion-worth of European solar equipment and raw materials.

China has called for dialogue to solve the dispute.

“Co-operation between the two sides benefits both while confrontation hurts both,” Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Song Tao told reporters this week, adding that rows were also “not conducive to world economic recovery”.