China seeks closer ties with Europe as US trade war erupts

Beijing's premier meets leaders from central and eastern Europe

China wants deeper co-operation with the EU and more foreign investment amid a trade war with the United States, Beijing's premier Li Keqiang said as he met leaders from 16 European states.

Mr Li promised further Chinese investment in countries stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea as he attended Saturday's seventh China-Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) summit in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.

He also sought to allay EU fears that China is trying to buy political influence in the region at a time of concern over threats to democracy, rule of law and anti-corruption efforts in several member states and candidate countries.

Mr Li said Beijing wanted to see a strong EU that was committed to free trade, seeking common cause with Europe as China responded in kind to US president Donald Trump's imposition of tariffs on $34 billion (€29bn) of Chinese goods.


"Unity between China and Europe and co-operation between us can ensure peace and stability in the whole world," Mr Li said at the "16+1" gathering in Sofia ahead of talks in Germany on Monday and a China-EU summit in Beijing a week later.

Market access

“Opening up has been a key driver of China’s reform agenda, so we will continue to open wider to the world, including widening market access for foreign investors,” he said. “Countries are welcome to board China’s economic express to share opportunities of China’s development.”

Mr Li made the case for unfettered trade just hours after Mr Trump threatened to extend levies to some $500 billion (€425bn) of goods from China, which he accuses of trading unfairly in a host of ways.

Last month Mr Trump introduced duties on steel and aluminium imports in what he called a bid to protect US jobs, prompting the EU to respond with €2.8 billion of retaliatory tariffs on US products.

China has pledged in recent years to invest billions of euro in roads, railways, ports, factories and power stations across central and eastern Europe, offering an alternative to EU funding for the much-needed modernisation of industry and infrastructure.

That transport network is intended to help bring China's goods into Europe as part of its vast Belt and Road plan, which aims to improve the country's links with Africa, the Middle East and Europe along ancient trade routes.


Brussels looks warily at such investments, however, and has called for greater transparency to ensure that Chinese cash is not being used to break EU competition rules or to feed the corruption that blights many of Europe’s poorest states.

China’s outlay is currently a fraction of what the EU offers in structural funds, however, and Mr Li insisted that it posed no threat to Europe.

“The 16+1 co-operation is by no means a geo-political platform. Some may say such co-operation may separate the EU, but this is not true,” he said. “China supports European integration and a united EU because we understand that the EU is an important force for global prosperity and peace.”

Bulgarian prime minister Boiko Borisov said Chinese investment "gives more opportunities to those who joined the EU later to catch up faster".

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe