Chinese President Xi, top European leaders said to plan call as tensions flare

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron are expected to hold a video call this week, said people with knowledge of the matter.

The agenda isn’t yet known, according to the people, who asked not to be named as the information isn’t public.

The virtual meeting will not be the first high-level communication between the trio at a time the pandemic has halted most international travel by world leaders. But it comes as tensions simmer between Europe and the world’s second-largest economy.

The respective readouts of any talks between the three would be closely dissected as once-cordial relations between the European Union and China fray over a stalled trade deal and human rights sanctions.

Macron is said to be keen to give a new push to the interests of the aviation company Airbus, and to press Xi on easing travel restrictions into China for EU citizens, especially businesspeople.

The call also comes weeks after Group of 7 leaders joined the EU and the US in pushing for a fresh World Health Organisation probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Previous calls

China’s foreign ministry didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment outside of business hours. Officials with the French and German governments didn’t confirm that the call would go ahead.

Grounded by the pandemic, Merkel, Macron and Xi held a video call in late 2020. Macron later hosted a virtual climate-focused call with Merkel and Xi in April, days before a wider climate summit hosted by US President Joe Biden, also held virtually.

At the time, the European leaders welcomed Xi’s renewed commitment for China to achieve CO2 neutrality by 2060. The trio also discussed the coronavirus pandemic and global vaccine availability.

Macron has said that one of his goals as French president is to visit China once a year, and he invited Merkel to a meeting with Xi in France in 2019, to project a unified front to Beijing from Europe’s two largest economies.

China has taken an increasingly defiant stance on the international stage recently.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi, echoing Xi’s centennial celebration speech on July 1, criticised the US and its allies this weekend for holding onto an outdated Cold War mentality that’s often seen as opposing the Chinese government.

EU lawmakers in May stalled the ratification of a landmark investment deal with China – the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment – in response to Beijing’s counter-sanctions against members of the bloc.

The EU, along with the US, the UK and Canada, earlier this year imposed sanctions against China over alleged human rights abuses on Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, drawing an immediate reaction from Beijing.

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Much of the global criticism toward China has focused on its treatment of the Uighurs and other minorities in the far west of the country. China has waged an international campaign against the claims, saying it’s trying to fight terrorism and improve the livelihoods of minorities.

A panel of United Nations experts in 2019 said an estimated 1 million people have been sent to internment facilities in the region, part of a set of policies the US has said amounts to genocide.

Western brands have also been pulled into the controversy. This spring, China promoted a campaign to boycott certain Western companies after the EU and its allies imposed the sanctions.

Shares of H&M, Nike and others plummeted as Chinese officials endorsed the boycotts and celebrities cut ties with brands including Adidas, New Balance and Japan’s Uniqlo.

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