Merkel leads EU talks with China looking to ease tensions

BRUSSELS (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel, top European Union officials, and Chinese President Xi Jinping are holding talks Monday focused on trade, giving impetus to slow-moving talks on an investment agreement and building trust to tackle thorny political issues that are harming their ties.

Merkel, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, will be joined by Council President Charles Michel, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, for the videoconference, due to start at 1200 GMT.

The talks between two of the three largest economies and traders in the world will allow them to take stock of their ties, with the Europeans wanting to focus on economic issues, reform of the World Trade Organization, climate change, and the coronavirus pandemic.

The EU sees China as a “systemic rival” offering great opportunities but also presenting many challenges, and the pandemic has created new obstacles, notably what Brussels sees as a China-orchestrated campaign of disinformation about the disease that could put lives at risk.

China has been accused of trying to influence European officials, and Borrell has twice denied this year that the External Action Service — a kind of EU foreign office that he leads — has bowed to Beijing’s pressure to alter documents.

While the 27-nation EU — China’s biggest trading partner — is often divided in its approach to Beijing, the security law recently imposed on Hong Kong has galvanized the bloc, and member countries insist it is undermining the territory’s autonomy guaranteed in the “one country, two systems” framework.

The Europeans are expected to underline their concerns about Hong Kong and tensions in the South China Sea during Monday’s talks, and renew their call for having a human rights dialogue with Chinese officials later this year.

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