EU asks China to open markets following free trade support

BEIJING — The European Union ambassador to China welcomed its endorsement of free trade in the face of U.S. President Donald Trump's promise to restrict imports and appealed to Beijing on Wednesday to make good on that sentiment by lowering its own market barriers.

Hans Dietmar Schweisgut also said it was too early to know how Trump's rejection of an Asian trade pact this week might affect a similar proposed U.S.-European agreement.

Schweisgut's comments reflected the potentially global repercussions of Trump's promises of sweeping change in U.S. trade, climate and foreign policy. That has prompted questions about whether Beijing, which relies on the United States for technology and export markets, might move closer to Europe as a political and commercial partner.

In an implicit criticism of Trump, President Xi Jinping said in a speech last week a "trade war" would harm all sides and called on other governments to reject protectionism. That was despite complaints by trading partners that China is the most closed major economy.

"We appreciate this commitment by China not only to open up its own market but also to very much support and champion an open international trading system" said Schweisgut at a news conference.

Xi's gave no details of possible changes in his speech at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, but Schweisgut expressed confidence the comments will lead to "concrete progress" in market opening. He said that is necessary because China has "no level playing field" for foreign companies while Europe is "the most open market in the world."

U.S., European and other foreign companies complain they are barred from or sharply restricted in telecoms, information technology, finance and other promising industries in violation of Beijing's free-trading pledges.

European companies are frustrated that they are blocked from acquiring Chinese assets at a time when China's companies have bought major global brands including German robot maker Kuka.

U.S. companies express similar frustration. In a report last week, the American Chamber of Commerce in China said 81 percent of companies that responded to a survey feel "less welcome in China" than they did in the past. It said most believe China's business environment "discourages investment."

The American chamber said U.S. companies want Trump to take a tougher stance with Beijing on market access but to proceed carefully.

Asked what impact Europe expected on its proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the United States following Trump's withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Schweisgut said, "I cannot give you an answer at this stage. It is too early."

The ambassador gave a similar reply when asked whether European exporters of aircraft, autos and other goods might benefit if Trump raises tariffs on Chinese goods and Beijing retaliates by cutting purchases of Boeing jets and other U.S. imports.

Schweisgut said Europe expects to develop closer relations this year with Beijing on trade and climate, but acknowledged they have disagreements, especially on human rights.

Asked about last year's detention of lawyers who handle human rights and other sensitive cases, the ambassador said European envoys planned to raise those and other cases with Chinese authorities.

"We have an obligation to speak up and we will do so," he said.

Regarding Beijing's move this week to restrict use of virtual private networks that allow users to bypass filters blocking access to many foreign websites, Schweisgut said Europe was "very concerned" about any restrictions that weren't based on "very plausible and concrete security concerns."

"We are obviously against restrictions on the internet because we think a free and open internet serves all countries," he said.

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