EU chief Charles Michel announced on Thursday he would meet President Xi Jinping in China next week as Europe seeks to confront Beijing over human rights and Taiwan while maintaining trade ties.
“We will discuss global challenges as well as subjects of common interest,” Michel tweeted.
His spokesman added: “Against the backdrop of a tense geopolitical and economic environment, the visit is a timely opportunity for both EU and China to engage.”
The trip comes amid a lively debate between European Union capitals as to how to handle relations with China, amid concerns over Beijing’s rights record, threats to Taiwan, trade pressure on some EU countries and support for Russia.
The United States is pushing its Western allies to align themselves against China but some EU members with important trade links resist splitting world affairs into two camps.
Michel walks a line between Germany, with its important economic interests in China, and EU members like Lithuania, which has attracted Beijing’s anger by building links with Taiwan.
EU capitals have also been concerned by China’s bond with Russia, even in the wake of Moscow’s invasion and bombardment of Western-backed Ukraine.
Earlier this month at an ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, just ahead of the G20 summit at which Xi met US President Joe Biden, Michel urged Beijing to push Russia to respect international law.
“We encourage the Chinese authorities to use all the means at their disposal to convince Russia to respect internationally recognised borders, to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine,” Michel told AFP at the time.
Also this month, in an incident that underlined the tensions between Brussels and Beijing, a speech that Michel had been scheduled to broadcast at a Chinese trade fair was cancelled.
European diplomats told AFP that China had sought to censor a video speech from Michel for the China International Import Expo and that Brussels had preferred to pull it.
One diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Chinese authorities had wanted to censor all reference to the war in Ukraine, a sensitive issue for Beijing.
China seeks to position itself as neutral over the conflict but has offered diplomatic backing to its strategic ally Russia.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met Xi in China on November 4 to push for greater economic cooperation and more equal trade ties, despite misgivings among his fellow EU leaders.
Beijing did not offer any immediate comment on Michel’s trip next week.
Asked about it, a spokeswoman at China’s foreign ministry said only that “China will release information in due course”.