China, EU keen to push message of free trade, engagement

Beijing and Brussels were set Wednesday to hold their first high-level talks since President Donald Trump took office, with both sides eager to push a message of free trade and open engagement in contrast to the new U.S. administration's skepticism about such arrangements.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini will co-chair the Seventh EU-China Strategic Dialogue with State Councilor Yang Jiechi, China's highest-ranking diplomat.

Cooperation on regional and security issues and climate change were among the agenda items for the talks, which come ahead of an EU-China summit scheduled for Brussels in June.

On Tuesday, Mogherini met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who said the international community was looking at how China and the EU would work together to tackle challenges including the world economic recovery, global conflicts and terrorism, and Britain's pending withdrawal from the EU.

Li said he was optimistic about the outcome of the talks based on "a stable China-EU relationship, with the consistency of our two sides toward multilateralism and free trade, and with our joint commitment to improving the international governance structure."

Unlike Trump, who was elected promising to tear up trade deals, impose new tariffs and bring jobs back to America, Chinese President Xi Jinping has cast his country as a champion of free trade and stability, and spoken out against protectionism.

Mogherini said that such speeches by Xi "have raised high expectations that China and the European Union can work together on multilateralism, on rules-based global order" and trade.

"Not only our people, but probably the multilateral system, need Europe and China to work together on some of the major global issues we are facing, from climate change to migration or counterterrorism, and also the many crises we have around us such as the tensions on the Korean Peninsula," Mogherini told Li at the start of their meeting at the Chinese leadership compound Zhongnanhai in central Beijing.

Beijing and Brussels have disagreements on trade, however, including complaints by European and other foreign companies that they blocked from acquiring Chinese assets while China's companies are buying major global brands. They also say they are barred from or sharply restricted in telecoms, information technology, finance and other promising industries in violation of Beijing's free-trading pledges.

Beijing, meanwhile, wants the EU to grant it market economy status, which would make it harder for the EU to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese imports that it deems to be unfairly cheap.

Other points of dispute between Beijing and Brussels include China's increasingly restrictive environment for civil society and internet censorship.

Mogherini's first meeting Wednesday, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, was canceled. A foreign ministry official said the EU delegation had informed them that Mogherini was feeling unwell.

Mogherini will give a speech at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University on Thursday, and then travel to India and Russia.