BEIJING – The ink had barely dried on the first joint statement between China and the European Union in three years before the complaints began.
Following a rare decision to allow reporters inside a session with business leaders in Beijing on Monday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang heard unfiltered comments from senior EU officials about the everyday reality for Europeans of conducting commerce in China.
EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, who is responsible for negotiations to resolve a dispute with the U.S. over metal tariffs, pointed to a decline in EU investments in China and cited “a broad range of barriers” facing companies on both accessing the Chinese market and operating in the country.
“China has made strong pleas to keep markets open and fight protectionism. This is reassuring to the EU and its business community,” Malmstrom told the session. “However, we would like to see these encouraging words translated into more concrete action from China to further open up investment.”
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said there was a need for “relevant trading partners” to observe the EU’s “very strict regulations” on state aid, while citing government subsidies in manufacturing as another area of concern. “The EU is open, but it is not naive,” Juncker said.
The session highlighted a source of friction between the two economic giants as they attempt to present a united front against President Donald Trump’s confrontational trade policies. While the Europeans might not approve of the U.S. leader’s tariffs and decision to work outside existing multilateral bodies, they share some of his concerns about market access to China.
The exchange with Li took place immediately after an EU-China summit that agreed to a joint statement, a success that eluded the previous two annual meetings. Among the progress hailed was an exchange of offers aimed at moving toward a bilateral investment treaty, the establishment of a “China-EU co-investment fund” and a plan to enforce intellectual property rights.
Li, whose government is facing U.S. tariffs on $200 billion of goods, seemed keen to act on the pledges made.
“I want to hear if any big company here would like to make a complaint here on the theft of intellectual property, so that I will take great measures,” he told a BMW executive.
To an Airbus representative, he was even more helpful: “Whatever problems you have, we will solve them,” Li said.