With China & US on the Outs, EU Wades In

A statue named “Lady Liberty Hong Kong,” which was inspired by the outfits of anti-extradition law protesters, is displayed in a branch of local retail chain for children’s wear, Chickeeduck in Hong Kong on Thursday. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

BRUSSELS (AP) — Top European Union officials were holding talks Monday with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang at a time of rising tensions between major trading partners over the fallout from the coronavirus crisis and Beijing’s increasing control over Hong Kong.

European Council President Charles Michel, EU commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, will hold two video conferences separately, first with the premier and later with Xi.

The meetings were not expected to produce concrete results — no joint statement will be issued — but the Europeans hope it will boost slow-moving talks on an investment agreement and build some common ground for tackling thorny political issues at a face-to-face meeting, perhaps late in the year.

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

The meetings come as China stands accused of trying to influence European officials and Borrell has twice denied in recent months 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 is China’s biggest trading partner, it is often divided in its approach to Beijing. But the new security law for Hong Kong has galvanized the bloc. EU member countries say the law will undermine the territory’s autonomy, which was guaranteed in the one-country, two-systems framework.

Monday’s meetings were originally meant to be a summit on March 30, but the coronavirus pandemic pushed it off the agenda, along with another high-level event that was due to take place in September in the German city of Leipzig.

The Europeans were to hold a news conference later Monday but no Chinese officials were scheduled to take part.

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