By Laurie Chen and Philip Blenkinsop
BEIJING (Reuters) -The European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said on Friday the EU was committed to managing bilateral relations with China in a “constructive and responsible manner” amid a threat of continued trade investigations that has raised Beijing’s ire.
Borrell, who was speaking at a press briefing after talks with his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, said “we need fairness, balance and reciprocity in order to remain as open as we are and want to be”.
Borrell is on a long-anticipated three-day visit to China after two postponements earlier this year. His visit also comes a week after the EU launched an anti-subsidy investigation into Chinese electric vehicle (EV) imports – while also reportedly planning investigations of steelmakers producing excess in countries like China – as part of a pact with the United States.
Wang described the talks as “comprehensive, candid and friendly” and said China took Europe’s concerns on trade seriously, but urged the EU to avoid “protectionist” approaches and be cautious in using trade remedies.
“We need to keep industrial chains stable and maintain fair competition,” Wang said.
Earlier on Friday, Borrell urged China to redress economic and trade imbalances, or efforts by the EU to reduce its dependence on China might “accelerate far more than is good”.
“It is … in our interest to find common ground, to redress the imbalance in our economic and trade relations,” Borrell told students at the capital’s prestigious Peking University.
“Otherwise, de-risking may indeed accelerate far more than is good, as public opinion will increase its pressure on political leaders to disengage more from China.”
The 27-member EU’s record $426.08 billion trade deficit with the world’s second-largest economy has become a major sticking point in the relationship, along with Beijing’s close ties with Moscow since the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“My question to China is how can we make this interdependency less conflictual,” Borrell said, referring to economic relations, adding that the EU and China needed to work together more than ever.
Brussels has dubbed China an “economic competitor and a systemic rival”, but both sides are determined to resume dialogue after the COVID-19 pandemic in the face of rising geopolitical tension, even as the relationship has grown more troubled in recent years.
Both Borrell and Wang touched on a broad range of hot-button issues, including the Israel-Hamas conflict that re-erupted after a devastating cross-border Hamas attack from Gaza.
Borrell said Israel’s call for more than a million Palestinians in Gaza to relocate to the enclave’s south in 24 hours to get out of harm’s way in an expected Israeli invasion of the small territory was “unrealistic”.
“EU foreign ministers agreed that Israel has the right to defend itself from aggression, but this has to be done in line with international law,” Borrell said.
Wang, who reiterated that China condemned all acts that harm civilians and opposed any violation of international law, also said relevant countries must avoid causing an even bigger blow to international and regional security.
He said China was communicating with key parties over the Israel-Hamas conflict and would take part in emergency U.N. Security Council sessions on the matter. A special Chinese envoy for Middle East peace would visit relevant countries for talks.
“When the two-state solution is completely implemented, the Middle East will be able to enjoy lasting peace and Israel enduring security,” Wang said, alluding to Palestinians’ quest for statehood in Israel-occupied territory.
“The Palestinian question is at the heart of Middle East issues and a wound that keeps being torn open in today’s world.”
Borrell said he also asked China to use its influence on Russia to stop its war in Ukraine and agree to a revival of the Black Sea grain export deal.
“We count on China to support Ukraine peace negotiations,” he said, while adding that up until now, there had not been any direct Chinese military support for Russia.
Borrell’s visit also aimed to lay the groundwork for an EU-China summit expected before the end of 2023, and comes after a string of trips to China by top EU officials in recent months.
“It’s a complex relationship and there are irritants,” said a senior EU official. “It’s about realism and being open about what we need to do as the EU and defend our interests … It’s about honesty and engagement.”
Chinese state media tabloid Global Times said in a Thursday editorial the visit presented a “significant opportunity for candid communication” but it urged the EU to maintain strategic autonomy from the United States.
Key to Borrell’s agenda will be convincing Beijing that the EU does not seek to decouple from China but wants to reduce critical dependencies and achieve a more balanced relationship, the EU official said.
(Reporting by Laurie Chen, Albee Zhang, Bernard Orr and Ethan Wang in Beijing, and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; Editing by Jamie Freed, Robert Birsel)