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Wu Hongbo (seen in March 2013) last visited Europe in November 2021. Photo: Jonathan Wong

ExclusiveChina sends special envoy to Brussels in bid to salvage souring ties with EU

  • Wu Hongbo’s visit follows last month’s virtual summit where Beijing’s stance on Ukraine and alleged coercion of Lithuania emerged as major sources of tension
  • Brussels remains concerned about human rights, particularly in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and recently moved to enhance ties with Japan and Taiwan
China is dispatching a senior envoy to Brussels next week, as it looks to shore up its troubled ties with the European Union.
Wu Hongbo, Beijing’s special representative for Europe, will meet officials to discuss the fallout from last month’s virtual EU-China summit, a Brussels source said.

“He will have meetings in the European External Action Service on the EU-China relationship, post-summit,” the source said, referring to the EU’s foreign policy arm.

The April 1 summit was seen as an eye-opener for European leaders, who were surprised by the force of what they saw as Beijing’s intransigence over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an issue that has further soured relations between the two sides.
Nor was Beijing open to discussing its alleged economic coercion of Lithuania over its relations with Taiwan, EU officials said.


Heightened tensions in Taiwan amid Russian invasion of Ukraine

Heightened tensions in Taiwan amid Russian invasion of Ukraine
In the days following, foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell described the summit as “a dialogue of the deaf”.

“China wanted to set aside our differences on Ukraine, they didn’t want to talk about Ukraine. They didn’t want to talk about human rights and other stuff and instead focus on positive things,” Borrell said during a fiery debate on China in the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

As a result, the agenda for Wu’s visit is likely to look very different compared with his last trip to Europe in November.

Then Wu – a former ambassador to Germany- led a heavyweight delegation that included another former ambassador to Berlin, Shi Mingde, and took in a number of European cities.

US and EU vow coordinated tech standards to counter China’s rising influence

Between them, they met officials and business leaders, but also the targets of Chinese sanctions – including Reinhard Buetikofer, a German member of the European Parliament, and representatives from the Mercator Institute for China Studies.

The primary objective was the removal of tit-for-tat sanctions, which had led to the demise of a long-negotiated EU-China investment deal, sources said at the time, but European sanctions on mid-level officials accused of involvement in rights abuses in Xinjiang were automatically renewed days later.

In the six weeks since the most recent summit, EU officials have been unable to nail down a date for their biennial High-Level Trade and Economic Dialogue with China, a senior source said.

A commitment to maintaining the dialogue, which last took place in 2020, was one of the few deliverables from the summit and was earmarked to be held before the end of June.

The EU has proposed dates, but are unsure whether China’s reticence to commit is due to the domestic Covid-19 situation, or whether interlocutors are waiting for political blessing from higher ups, the source said.

China has yet to name a replacement for Zhang Ming, the former ambassador to the EU who left his role five months ago to take the reins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

But it has stepped up virtual engagement in recent weeks with a number of high-level calls between President Xi Jinping and European counterparts.

EU and Japan to forge united front against China and Russia at summit

Wu’s visit follows a lengthy tour of Central and Eastern Europe by Huo Yuzhen, Beijing’s special envoy for that region.

Huo visited the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Poland.

According to reports, she attempted to assure her hosts that China was not an ally of Russia, and floated the idea of downgrading the 16+1 grouping – a decade-old effort to build ties with central and eastern European countries – to the level of foreign ministers.

Lithuania left the format last year and, on Thursday, a group of Czech lawmakers tabled a resolution urging the new government in Prague to follow suit.

Politico reported that China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua is also planning to visit Europe later this month.


Ukrainian soldiers surrender besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol to Russia

Ukrainian soldiers surrender besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol to Russia

In the meantime, Brussels has been building ties with some of China’s fiercest rivals, including establishing a “digital partnership” with Japan, and agreeing to upgrade its trade ties with Taiwan, which Beijing views as a breakaway province.

Last week, the EU signed a Group of Seven statement that roundly condemned China on everything from human rights and the crackdown on political opposition in Hong Kong, to “cyber-enabled intellectual property theft” and “coercive economic policies”.

“We call on China not to assist Russia in its war of aggression against Ukraine, not to undermine sanctions imposed on Russia for its attack against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, not to justify Russian action in Ukraine, and to desist from engaging in information manipulation, disinformation and other means to legitimise Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” the statement read.

Hopes fade for China-EU investment deal as Ukraine war dominates summit

Buetikofer, who heads the European Parliament’s delegation on China and who is an outspoken critic of Beijing, said that he had not been asked to meet the delegation this time around.

In Brussels, Wu will be confronted with two major issues in Lithuania and Ukraine, he continued, but also a plethora of other ailments.

“The negativity pertains to a broader range of issues from national security through international law and human rights to the Chinese refusal to level the economic playing field and the adverse effects of the sinification of European investment in China,” Buetikofer said.