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China’s top diplomat plans European tour to thaw relations

by host

China’s top diplomat will visit Germany and Belgium next month in a bid to reset relations with a skeptical Europe, POLITICO can disclose.

Wang Yi will attend the Munich Security Conference and visit the EU headquarters, according to three diplomats with knowledge of his plan, although one diplomat said the precise dates of the Brussels trip have yet to be decided. The tour represents an opportunity to overcome strains in the relationship between China and Europe, amid Beijing’s continuing support for Moscow despite Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Wang has been promoted from foreign minister to the 24-person Politburo, the Communist Party’s ruling body, to oversee foreign affairs. He will be the highest-level official to visit Europe since the Communist Party Congress in October — which formalized Xi Jinping’s norm-breaking continuation at the helm of the world’s second-biggest economy — as well as China’s eventual end to the restrictive pandemic measures early this year.

With the U.S. as its preeminent strategic rival, China is looking into ways to restore warmer relations with Europe through diplomatic engagement. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and European Council President Charles Michel went to Beijing in November and December, securing what they called Xi’s expression of disapproval over Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine.

Xi also met the leaders of Italy, the Netherlands and Spain during the G20 summit in November. French President Emmanuel Macron said he would be visiting China early this year.

“China has been warming up to Europe over recent weeks,” a diplomat said.

The European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic arm, did not respond to a request for comment. The Chinese Mission to the EU did not reply when asked for comment on Wang’s plans.

Wang’s trip comes as the EU attempts to elevate its direct contact with Beijing’s Byzantine bureaucracy.

When former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was elevated to be the Party’s diplomacy boss, he stopped dealing with the EU, leaving it to then new minister Wang while he focused primarily on U.S.-China relations.

There are also signs of intensifying contacts between Beijing and Washington, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken due to visit Beijing early this year to “expand cooperation.”

Despite Beijing’s warning over Moscow’s nuclear threats, the Chinese and Russian leaders have united in shoring up an alternative alliance to the Western world order. In his most recent call with Putin, on December 30, Xi hailed a “more mature and resilient” comprehensive strategic partnership with Russia, noting a “record high” for bilateral trade in the first 11 months of last year.

Chinese diplomats, on the other hand, have sought to downplay the significance of Beijing’s ties with Moscow, which reached a high point just weeks before the Russian invasion when Xi and Putin announced a “no limits” partnership. The new Chinese Ambassador to the EU Fu Cong said “people should not read too much into” such labels as “no limits,” adding that Beijing could describe relations with the EU in the same terms.

Several officials who met with Fu, who started his job a month ago, said he was very keen to see how to revive the stalled ratification process over the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. The deal, fervently pushed by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the European Commission’s trade department, has remained “frozen” by the European Parliament after Beijing sanctioned some EU lawmakers in response to the EU sanctioning Chinese officials involved in suppressing Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

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