China has ‘rich agenda’ for free trade negotiations in 2024 amid high-level opening-up

China is striving to complete negotiations on version 3.0 of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (FTA) in 2024 amid a "rich agenda" for FTA negotiations in a bid to further advance high-standard opening-up, Chinese vice minister of commerce Wang Shouwen told a press conference on Friday. 

China's active engagement in FTA talks reflects China's commitment to deepening economic cooperation and integration and will have a positive impact on both China and the world economy by promoting trade, investment, and regional economic integration, experts said.

The talks on version 3.0 of the China-ASEAN FTA are scheduled to take place in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province, next week, Wang said.

Additionally, China will also complete FTA negotiations with Honduras, complete FTA upgrade negotiations with Peru and continue to promote the joining of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA) this year, Wang said.

In November 2022, China and ASEAN jointly announced the official launch of the negotiations. The two sides agreed that the negotiations will cover fields including trade in goods, investment, and digital and green economy, so as to build a more inclusive, modern, comprehensive, and mutually beneficial China-ASEAN FTA.

"The upgrade of the China-ASEAN FTA caters to the mutual development needs of both China and ASEAN, and will contribute to further enhancing the bilateral trade volume," Zhou Shixin, a research fellow at Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, told the Global Times on Friday.

Bilateral trade between China and ASEAN reached 6.41 trillion yuan ($900 billion) in 2023, with ASEAN maintaining its position as China's largest trading partner for the fourth consecutive year. China has continued to be ASEAN's largest trading partner for multiple years.

Additionally, the upgrade of the China-ASEAN FTA is expected to drive the upgrades of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and lay a good foundation for China's joining of CPTPP and DEPA, Zhou said.

Wang believes China now has more mature conditionsfor joining the CPTPP, as it has been consistently making efforts to promote deep exchanges with CPTPP members and enhance pilot projects and experiments within its domestic free trade zones, aligning with high-level international standards. 

"We have full confidence and the capability of meeting the high standards set by the CPTPP," Wang said.

China will also continue to engage in free trade negotiations or upgrade negotiations with the Gulf Cooperation Council, New Zealand, South Korea, and Switzerland to further implement the high-standard free trade zone network, Wang added.

High-standard economic and trade rules, as well as new content such as the lifting of the zero tariff ratio for goods traded, the promotion of telecommunications and healthcare services opening-up, and the expansion of market access for digital products will be included in the new free trade negotiations, Wang said.

"The proactive moves demonstrate China's commitment to further opening its doors and injecting new vitality into the regional economy amid the slowdown in global economic recovery," Zhou said.

2024 is indeed a pivotal year for the enhancement of free trade agreements. China's increasing domestic competitiveness, coupled with the opportunities of the digital and green era, as well as the "decoupling" and supply chain disruptions imposed by the US and the West, call for renewed efforts to upgrade free trade agreements, Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times.

"It will not only drive China's economic growth but also contribute to open and inclusive economic globalization," Wang Yiwei added.

2023 saw the RCEP come into full effect and was a fruitful year for China to expand free trade agreements with other partners. 

"In 2023, we signed four new free trade agreements. As of today, we have signed 22 free trade agreements with 29 countries and regions, and trade with those countries and regions accounted for approximately one-third of China's total foreign trade volume," Wang said.

Chinese enterprises enjoyed import duty reductions of 2.36 billion yuan under the RCEP last year. At the same time, import enterprises from RCEP partner countries benefited from preferential treatment worth 4.05 billion yuan when importing products from China, which is a clear and mutually beneficial outcome for both sides, Wang said.

Saudi Arabia-China economic relations thrive as international model, reflecting strong trade volume and diverse partnership opportunities: chamber head

Editor's note: Saudi Arabia, as one of the earliest countries to participate in the joint construction of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has demonstrated a strategic alignment with its own Vision 2030. This synchronization has injected significant momentum into the economic and trade development of  the two countries. The robust economic complementarity between the two countries creates vast opportunities for collaborative fields, ranging from energy and transportation to finance and technology. In a recent exclusive interview with Global Times (GT) reporter Yin Yeping, Mohammed A. Al Ajlan (Al Ajlan), chairman of Saudi Chinese Business Council, highlighted the fruitful results of bilateral cooperation and expressed optimism for stronger economic ties.

GT: Saudi Arabia was an early supporter of the BRI. How has Saudi businesses benefited from the participation, and what are your expectations for future bilateral cooperation in the joint construction of this initiative?

Al Ajlan
: There are great opportunities for economic integration between the Kingdom and China through the "Silk Road Economic Belt," which in many aspects is consistent with Vision 2030 in terms of its directions to exploit the Kingdom's strategic location to connect the continents of the world and make it a global logistics center.

This harmony and alignment between Vision 2030 and the BRI enhances opportunities for cooperation and partnership between the two countries, helps accelerate the pace of development and its sustainability, and provides Saudi and Chinese companies with huge investment opportunities.

Chinese investments in infrastructure in the Kingdom, represented by the BRI, are estimated at about $5.5 billion. In general, Saudi and Chinese companies have benefited and will benefit in the future from the huge investment opportunities presented by both Vision 2030 and the China-proposed BRI.

GT: Since 2013, China has become Saudi Arabia's largest trading partner, while Saudi Arabia has consistently been China's top trading partner in the Middle East for over 20 years. In what specific areas do you see the strongest complementarity between the two countries, and how can they enhance cooperation in these areas?

Al Ajlan: There is no doubt that the Saudi Arabia-China economic relations are strong and solid and are considered an international model to be emulated in fruitful, constructive cooperation and strategic partnership as a result of the support of the political leadership and government agencies in the two countries.

Given the volume of trade exchanges between the Kingdom and China, which amounted to about 397 billion riyals ($106 billion) in 2022, this reflects the strength of the strategic economic partnership and the diversity and multiplicity of trade and investment opportunities in the two countries.

Therefore, the areas of cooperation are open and multiple in sectors such as retail, technology, and the automobile industry, of which China holds a share of the Saudi market, in addition to energy, contracting, real estate, modern construction technology, smart cities, industry, and transportation.

Also, among the new investment areas between the two countries are the sectors such as renewable and clean energy, financial technology (fintech), tourism, entertainment, sports, and housing.

This steady development in the economic relations between the two countries came with the support of the political leadership in the Kingdom and China and this relationship is based on solid institutional frameworks such as the Saudi-Chinese Joint Committee, the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement, and bilateral cooperation agreements.

The Saudi-Chinese Business Council, which includes from the Saudi side about 350 companies, plays a great role in promoting bilateral trade, contributing directly to raising the level of trade exchanges and joint investments between the Kingdom and China.

GT: The People's Bank of China and the Saudi Central Bank signed a bilateral currency swap agreement in November 2023. What practical benefits do you anticipate from this agreement in terms of strengthening financial cooperation, trade, and investment facilitation?

Al Ajlan: This is an additional option that gives importers and exporters more flexibility and freedom to choose the currency they wish to deal in.

There is no doubt that it demonstrates the extent of the interconnected relationship between the two countries and also facilitates the process of trade exchanges.

 We do not negate here the importance of being subject to the regulations of the central banks in the two countries and the requirements and regulations according to which they operate.

GT: Energy cooperation is a major focus for the two countries. In your opinion, what additional paths can be explored in energy cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia, considering the dominance of conventional fossil fuels and the emerging trends in new-energy sources?

Al Ajlan: The Kingdom today has strong strategies and directions toward transitioning to a green economy and renewable and clean energy, and as China is considered the leading country in the global new-energy sector, the opportunities for developing investment and partnership in this field are promising between the two countries.

Chinese companies are among the largest companies in the world that manufacture solar modules, and indeed there is existing cooperation and multiple agreements between Saudi and Chinese companies in renewable energy projects, solar energy, and green hydrogen.

In the traditional sector, the Kingdom is the main supplier of oil to China, and cooperation between the two countries is great in this sector, including petrochemicals. 

Recently, Aramco signed several cooperation agreements with Chinese companies such as Rongsheng and Eastern Xinghong.

HKSAR government clarifies Chief Executive-recommended investment video is scam done by AI

The government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) on Wednesday clarified video clip about investment plan put forward by the HKSAR Chief Executive was done by artificial intelligence (AI), and called on the public to be aware of the scam content. 

The HKSAR government said the so-called remarks by the Chief Executive in the scam video were fictitious, and condemned those who have attempted deception under the name of the Chief Executive.

The government said the incident will be referred to police for further investigation, and noticed the public to be cautious regarding similar investment-related advertisements or promotional videos, verify the authenticity of the content, and keep personal information secure. 

The AI-generated scam clip circulated online plagiarized an interview between HKSAR Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu and a local journalist, and forged an investment video using AI, which promoted a claimed HK$60,000 ($7,674.45) of payback per week by investing HK$2,000, according to Hong Kong media, and another scam video showed "AI-created Elon Musk" also joined the investment plan. 

Local news site TVB News reported on Thursday that Hong Kong police have not received any reports of individuals being defrauded.

Robotic operations

A robotic arm picking system operates in an orderly manner at a local factory in Suqian, East China's Jiangsu Province, on January 17, 2024. As the year begins, major enterprises in the city are working at full capacity to meet orders, achieving a good start to the year. Photo: VCG

China vows to actively develop AI standards, governance rules

China aims to develop 60 percent of AI-related standards serving innovations of key technologies and applications by 2026, part of the targets mentioned in a draft aimed at encouraging the regulated development of AI. 

The draft, issued by China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) on Wednesday, also aims to put in place more than 50 national and industrial AI standards and 20 international standards to facilitate high-quality development of the AI industry.

The draft also proposes for more than 1,000 companies to adopt and advocate for new standards. There will have more than 1,000 companies expected to contribute and embrace these new standards, while the draft also encourages Chinese AI enterprises to participate in international cooperation in this field. 

The draft is made in the background as China's AI industry is developing quickly in terms of technology innovation and applications. 

With the accelerated technologies represented by large models, the AI industry has shown new paths forward in tech breakthroughs and deep collaboration between countries, creating an acute need to put in place meaningful industry standards, the MIIT said. 

China would work with other countries to resolve global issues concerning AI ethics, security and privacy, and promote the construction of a fairer, more reasonable and effective global AI governance system, Wang Peng, an associate researcher at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Thursday.

China will place more emphasis on the high quality growth and sustainable development of the AI in the future, Wang added, noting the proposed standards could play a pivotal role in shaping the future of AI development and collaboration on an international scale.

In October 2023, China put forward the Global AI Governance Initiative, which covers AI development, safety and governance. It offered a constructive way of thinking on AI issues that will provide a reference for relevant global discussions and rule-making.

The vast potential of AI across the economy has also attracted interest from major international players. 

Recently, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Juniper Networks, a leader in AI-native networks, announced that they have entered an agreement under which HPE will acquire Juniper in an all-cash transaction for $40.00 per share, representing an equity value of approximately $14 billion.

The combination of HPE and Juniper advances HPE's portfolio mix shift toward higher-growth solutions and strengthens its high-margin networking business. Following the merger, the overall network business line will be stronger and better able to provide network equipment services to Chinese users, the company said.

My work experience at UNC-Chapel Hill: Universities should build bridges, not knock them down

In January 2023, I took on a faculty position at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. During my first semester, I taught a course on China and the global economy, which aimed to help MBA students from across the world gain a better understanding of China's evolving role in international business and technology affairs. The course went so well that I was asked to teach two sections for the MBA students in the fall and introduce an undergraduate version of the course.

Unfortunately, in August 2023, I resigned from my position at UNC due to irreconcilable differences regarding the university's discouraging approach to engagement with China. The top academic administrators at UNC simply believed that deepening engagement with China would put the integrity of the university's research system in jeopardy and pose unacceptable national security risks.

My problems began when I was invited to speak at the Zhongguancun Forum in Beijing in May 2023. To obtain university approval, I had to navigate through a bureaucratic gauntlet that involved a review of my intended trip by the university security office, the office dealing with export controls, the vice provost for global affairs, the university research office and the IT office.

I was told that I could not bring my university-supplied computer to China, nor could I log in to the university email system from China. According to university security officials, since China deploys telecommunications equipment from Huawei, which is not an approved US equipment supplier (for security reasons), I could not access the university IT system while in China. However, despite these restrictions, I was eventually granted approval to travel to China as a keynote speaker. In order to obtain this approval, I had to disclose the details of my invitation, the source of my ticket and local expenses, the content of my presentation, and the expected audience size of 2,500-3,000 people.

The myopic thinking of the administration went even further. In July, the Chinese embassy in DC contacted me to arrange a meeting in North Carolina for a small visiting group of three people from the public affairs section - not the military affairs section or even the science and technology section. The purpose of the meeting was to exchange ideas about the state of China-US relations. This is the type of meeting I had organized on many occasions during my three-plus decades as an academic in the US. There were to be no campus visits to labs or other research facilities, no media and no photos. The Chinese group requested that I invite five to six UNC faculty members who had previous engagements with China so that they could get a broad perspective of opinions about the problems and issues involved in cooperation and exchanges between the two countries.

The morning before the visit, however, I received an urgent call from the UNC Provost reprimanding me for organizing such meetings without top-tier approval from the university, even if the meeting was only to be held in the business school where I had my faculty appointment. While Kenan-Flagler Business School colleagues and administrators were extremely supportive of my activities with China, the same could not be said for the university administration. The provost subsequently sent me a strong written admonishment stating that my contract did not include inviting foreign diplomats to campus. The embassy visit did proceed as planned because there was not enough time to cancel it, but the actions that I seemed to provoke were totally inconsistent with the idea that UNC Chapel Hill is a true global university. 

The final straw in this downward spiral was a decision made by the university that there would be no university-sponsored student trips to China. For both undergraduate and graduate students in the business school, it has become common to participate in a two-to-three-week global immersion experience to highlight the fact that all business is international. Of course, given my four decades of connections in China, I wanted to bring one or two student groups to China to meet both Chinese and international business executives and local officials to learn about doing business in the world's second-largest economy. However, I was told that the university follows the US State Department rating system about country risk and since China was in the Category Three designation, it could not be an approved destination. Category Three means "Do not go if you do not need to go." To the best of my knowledge, no foreign student has ever been restricted from leaving China, but this remains US policy. Accordingly, no trips are recommended to the Chinese mainland or even Hong Kong due to recent developments regarding its national security policy.

For me, this way of approaching engagement with China represents narrow-minded thinking and ignores the reality of China's growing importance in world affairs. The US needs graduates who are knowledgeable about China from their on-the-ground experience - about Chinese culture, society, geography and politics. We also need a cohort of young people who speak Chinese to facilitate better communication. By restricting university interactions with China, UNC and many other public universities in the US are acting in ways that are detrimental to both the interests of the US and the possibility of mending fences with China.

The souring of China-US relations over the last several years has had an important shaping effect on international relations, and the tensions between the two countries have frequently become highly problematic. Nonetheless, we must face reality: There is no global problem out there whose meaningful solution will not require close China-US cooperation. In other words, we must find a better way to work together if there is to be any hope of effectively unraveling the plethora of growing transnational problems we face - climate change, global pandemics, food security, management of AI and water management, to name a few. Universities should be at the forefront of building bridges across borders and cultures, not knocking them down.

Moreover, universities, through the education and training they provide to our young people from across the world, are our best hope of overcoming ethnic and racial bias, socio-cultural misperception, and outdated perspectives that contain antiquated cold war thinking. Fortunately, some universities, especially the private ones in the US, have not succumbed to this type of obsolete thinking. In this regard, the proposal by Chinese President Xi Jinping in November 2023 for China to host 50,000 American students over five years represents a breath of fresh air. Of course, many details need to be worked out. Let us all hope that reason will prevail and that even universities such as UNC will allow their students to participate in this and other types of related education exchanges and cooperative projects between the two countries.

High-tech innovations drive China's auto sector advances

China exported 5.22 million vehicles in 2023, becoming a leading car exporter in the world. Of all vehicle exports, about one-third were new-energy vehicles (NEVs), totaling 1.773 million units, up 67.1 percent year-on-year, according to statistics the General Administration of Customs released on Friday.

The export figure reflects the remarkable achievements China's auto industry has made in the transition to auto electrification and intelligence, which will also accelerate the transformation process of the global automobile sector, industry insiders said.

Such industrial transition was showcased by the latest high-tech products developed by Chinese carmakers unveiled at the 2024 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held from January 7 to 10 in Las Vegas.

For example, an affiliate of Chinese electric vehicle (EV) maker Xpeng revealed its "flying car" concept model at the event. The electric vertical takeoff and landing car will be available for preorder from the fourth quarter of 2024, with the goal of delivering the first shipment by the fourth quarter of 2025, the company said.

The industrial transition to electrification and intelligence also enabled BYD to overtake Tesla to become the world's biggest EV maker in the fourth quarter of 2023.

Industrial chain upgrading

An industry insider surnamed Zhang told the Global Times that, currently, almost all China-made cars, especially NEVs, are intelligent ones as they are equipped with smart functions such as autopilot and voice control. "It is somehow embarrassing for Chinese automakers to unveil a new car without intelligent features."

China's auto output exceeded 30.16 million units in 2023, up 11.6 percent year-on-year, and sales exceeded 30.09 million units, up 12 percent, according to data the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM) released on Thursday. Both output and sales set new records, ranking first in the world for 15 consecutive years, the CAAM said.

In particular, China produced 9.587 million NEVs in 2023, up 35.8 percent year-on-year. Sales of NEVs reached 9.495 million units, up 37.9 percent, making the NEV penetration rate at 31.6 percent, according to the CAAM.

The production of intelligent cars can drive a lot of industries, including software, hardware, chips, sensors, industrial data and more. A car is a larger application terminal than a mobile phone, and can boost the development of many high-tech industries, and vice versa, Zhang said.

A typical smart car is equipped with about 1,700 chips, a manager of a Chinese chip part supplier who works closely with the auto industry told the Global Times.

"The chip industrial chain is a long one. When it combines the automobile industrial chain, you can imagine how many upstream and downstream enterprises are connected and boosted," the manager said on condition of anonymity.

According to a recent report published by AskCI Consulting Co, a Chinese industrial consultancy, China's automotive chip market size was about 79.46 billion yuan ($11.1 billion) in 2022, and is expected to reach 90.54 billion yuan in 2024.

"China's significant uplift in the production and exports of cars means that smart parts and software will be boosted, which will help shore up the position of Chinese automobile part suppliers in the global value chain," the above-quoted Zhang said.

So far, large-scale NEV industrial hubs have been in the making in the Yangtze River Delta in East China, the Pearl River Delta in South China and the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Circle in Southwest China.

These NEV hubs have attracted more than 1,000 domestic and foreign enterprises, forming a complete and organic collaborative industrial chain and supply chain system for NEVs - covering the whole chain of basic materials, parts, and vehicle production.

Leading globally

Industry insiders pointed out that the production and sales of intelligent cars in China, which is now at the forefront of the global market, have fueled the development of the entire industrial chain and related technologies.

Zhang cited LiDAR, dubbed as the "eyes" for cars. Chinese suppliers produce and ship hundreds of thousands of sets every month for domestic and foreign carmakers.

Nearly 600,000 LiDAR units were shipped to passenger vehicles in 2023 in China alone, according to industry media HiEV, up from about 160,000 in 2022.

"The LiDAR market was first led by US suppliers, such as Velodyne. But its marketplace was soon largely replaced by RoboSense Technology Co and Hesai Technology, two Chinese lidar manufacturers. Their success was largely boosted by the massive Chinese auto market," Zhang said, adding that Chinese lidar is now commonly used in foreign car brands too.

RoboSense unveiled the newest in its M Platform line of sensors, which are deployed for advanced driver assistance and autonomy, at this year's CES event.

"As the world's first lidar company to achieve mass production of automotive-grade solid state LiDAR, in parallel with remarkable milestones in production and delivery, CES 2024 is the perfect stage to launch the latest cutting-edge solutions in our M Platform," said Steven Qui, Robosense's CEO and founder, in a statement the company sent to the Global Times.

"Alongside our key partners, RoboSense is providing attendees an inside look into how we are making the commercialization of LiDAR a reality," Qui said.

Hesai, which also participated in the CES 2024, has recently completed the construction of a new research and development (R&D) center of nearly 70,000 square meters in Shanghai for manufacturing named Maxwell, the company told the Global Times.

"Our new Maxwell facility is not a traditional manufacturing facility but an advanced R&D center where we design and build automated lidar production lines, which can then be easily replicated across our global network of manufacturing facilities," said David Li, co-founder and CEO of Hesai.

The facility includes the world's most advanced lidar testing lab and will utilize many smart industrial robots allowing for the automation of over 100 production processes with an automation rate of 90 percent and a 45 second cycle time per lidar unit, according to Hesai.

A Chinese manufacturer of high-precision positioning products told the Global Times that the company is planning to set up new production lines in early 2024 to better supply the domestic and overseas markets, given the fast-developing automobile industry.

"We are upgrading our positioning products to meet automakers' need, especially in level 3 autonomous driving," the manufacturer said.

According to national standards, there are six levels of autonomous driving ranging from level 0 to level 5. Starting from level 3, vehicles are considered conditionally autonomous.

The year 2024 is expected to be the Year One of the explosive development of autonomous driving technology, analysts said.

Although compared to the US, China is a relative latecomer in the field of autonomous driving, China has been catching up very fast and has amassed some comparable strength- vis-à-vis the US - over the past three years, Zhang Xiang, director of the Digital Automotive International Cooperation Research Center at World Digital Economy Forum, told the Global Times.

"The next three years will be a critical period for the commercialization and large-scale application of high-level autonomous driving features in China," Zhang the director said.

Xi urges more ‘bridges’ to be built between China, Europe in meeting with Belgian PM

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday met with visiting Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, agreeing to enhance ties and voicing against "decoupling."

The meeting carries unique significance as it opens a new year of high-level diplomacy between China and the EU in 2024, and can serve as an opportunity for the two sides to continue the momentum of engagement to deepen mutual understanding and expand cooperation, analysts said.

Such contact is even more important when the world is struggling with a sluggish economy, geopolitical uncertainty and regional conflicts, they said.

New momentum

China and Belgium are both beneficiaries of economic globalization and share common interests in resisting protectionism and safeguarding free trade, Xi told De Croo, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

China appreciates De Croo's open opposition to the decoupling or severing of industrial and supply chains on many occasions, welcomes Belgian companies to invest in China, and stands ready to provide them with a sound business environment, Xi said, expressing his hope that Belgium will also provide a fair, transparent and non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese companies.

Xi said the two sides can combine their respective strengths to expand cooperation in traditional areas such as transportation, logistics and biopharmaceuticals, and explore new growth areas for cooperation such as green development and digital economy.

He called on the two sides to encourage government departments, legislatures, and sub-national areas to strengthen exchanges and dialogue, expand tourism and exchange of students, organize large-scale cultural activities in each other's country, and carry out research on giant panda protection.

Xi said China is willing to strengthen communication with Belgium within multilateral frameworks such as the UN and carry out cooperation on issues such as climate change and biodiversity protection.

De Croo said the Belgium-China relationship is a pacesetter in European countries' ties with China in many aspects, noting that Belgium will continue to abide by the one-China policy, and have candid dialogue with China to deepen understanding and push for continuous development of bilateral relations in political, economic and other fields.

De Croo said Belgium opposes decoupling or severing of industrial and supply chains, welcomes Chinese enterprises to carry out cooperation in Belgium, and hopes to strengthen personnel and cultural exchanges with China.

A number of Belgian entrepreneurs accompanied De Croo on his visit, including industry leaders such as Solvay and Bekaert, said Cao Zhongming, Chinese ambassador to Belgium.

"I believe they will take full advantage of the high-level visit opportunity to engage in in-depth exchanges and collaborative discussions with Chinese officials and the business community to inject new impetus into bilateral economy, trade and investment cooperation," Cao told the Global Times in an exclusive interview.

China and the European Union (EU) have already conducted frequent interactions in 2023. But the visit by the Belgian prime minister carries unique significance as the country is the EU's political heartland and holds the presidency of the Council of the EU for 2024.

During the Friday meeting, while stressing that China maintains long-term consistency in its policy toward Europe, Xi said China has always regarded Europe as a partner and hopes that Europe will play a positive and constructive role as an important force in a multipolar world.

In the face of the changing and volatile international situation, China and Europe need to build more "bridges," he added.

Xi said the two sides should work more closely to promote an equal and orderly global multipolarity and an economic globalization that benefits all, and jointly promote world peace, stability and prosperity.

China is willing to work with the EU to foster progress in China-EU relations in the new year and hopes that Belgium, as the EU rotating presidency, will play a positive role in this regard, Xi added.

De Croo noted that he was deeply impressed by President Xi's vivid description of "bridges" during his visit to Belgium a decade ago.

Amid the changing and turbulent international situation, the world needs China and Europe to work as partners and strengthen cooperation in a wide range of areas such as promoting world economic growth, addressing climate change and building a more stable world, De Croo said.

Belgium, as the rotating presidency of the EU, is willing to play an active role in the development of EU-China relations and hopes that this visit will help elevate Belgium-China and EU-China relations, he added.

Cui Hongjian, a professor at the Academy of Regional and Global Governance of Beijing Foreign Studies University, told the Global Times on Friday that China-Belgium relations remain more stable with China-EU ties witnessing major changes in the past few years. It is hoped that the country can make positive contributions to resolving some China-EU trade disputes, Cui said.

The expert also underlined that China and EU should communicate on global hot spot issues including the Russia-Ukraine conflict and Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and try to maximize common views to facilitate the settlement of those issues.
Coping with changes

Despite the overall momentum of engagement, noises and waves still persist in China-EU relations. The European Commission initiated an anti-subsidies probe into electric vehicles (EVs) from China in October 2023 and hyped Chinese espionage in recent months.

Zhao Junjie, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of European Studies, told the Global Times that trade disputes between China and the EU are nothing new, and there have been many cases of this. However, they have not affected bilateral economic and trade cooperation in the past.

The "spy" claims were mainly hype from some media and right-wing politicians, Zhao said, as he stressed both sides should avoid escalating individual cases in certain fields to the level of overall trend of bilateral ties.

It is irresponsible and shortsighted to conclude that "sound China-EU relations are over" as a result of small skirmishes, Zhao said.

According to analysts, the EU shows duality in dealing with China - emphasizing cooperation while being harsh on values and ideology.

Cui pointed out that Europe has to cling to "political correctness" on "political" topics such as security and human rights. "Improving the EU's public opinion environment [toward China] and dispelling misconceptions requires practical cooperation and remains a challenging task."

China also recognizes that the EU's position - its economic structure and security dependence on the US - means it is difficult to maintain a completely independent policy, and handles disputes with the bloc in a way that is resilient to external disruptions, Cui said.

The EU is encouraged to adjust its mind-set in front of a strong China that is different from Europe in many aspects but is a sincere and trustworthy partner, analysts said.

Through a series of interactions in 2023, China and the EU have reached consensus on the importance of bilateral relations as well as the fact that the relationship is undergoing major changes.

"The crux is how to cope with the changes," Cui said. China copes with them with a positive attitude, believing that changes bring about new opportunities; but the EU tends to see those changes through a negative lens as risks and challenges.

Against the backdrop of a resurgence in European populism and conservatism and the European Parliament elections, the EU is in urgent need of leaders who have the strategic vision and political wisdom to guide the bloc as it goes through this concurrent turbulence, Chinese observers said.

They hope that in 2024, more European politicians can come to visit China, see a real China through their own eyes and engage with China in person, so as to establish a more comprehensive and less biased view of the country on the other end of the Eurasian continent.

Indonesian president visits Philippines for peace, stability in S.China Sea

As Indonesian President Joko Widodo kicked off his visit to the Philippines with the South China Sea issue on the agenda, Chinese experts believe that as leader of a major country in the region, Widodo will try to talk some sense into his Filipino counterpart to stop instigating tensions in the South China Sea, and that the Code of Conduct cannot be reached without the consensus of all regional countries, which must include China.

After meeting with Widodo on Wednesday, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said they had a "fruitful and honest discussion" on regional events of mutual interests including developments in the South China Sea, media reported. 

However, the Indonesian side made no such mention of this, saying only that the two countries agreed to "expedite revision of joint border patrol and crossing agreements, also to strengthen the defense cooperation including on military hardware," the Strait Times reported on Wednesday. 

Ahead of Widodo's three-day visit to the Philippines, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said on Tuesday her country is "ready to work together with all ASEAN member states including the Philippines to finalize the [South China Sea] Code of Conduct as soon as possible," Reuters reported.

Widodo's trip to the Philippines demonstrates Indonesia's strong commitment to maintaining peace and stability in the region, Gu Xiaosong, dean of the ASEAN Research Institute of Hainan Tropical Ocean University, told the Global Times on Wednesday. 

Experts said that the Indonesian president's visit came at a time when the world is in tumult, with the US, Europe and the Middle East being all embroiled in turmoil, while the Philippines is still trying to stir up troubles in the South China Sea that may threaten the hard-won peace and stability in Southeast Asia. 

Indonesia understands the value of peace and the positive relations with China, Gu said, so Widodo will likely engage in talks with Marcos to urge the Philippines to abandon its attempt to seek external interference from countries like the US to try deterring China, as well as call for the formation of a code of conduct that is agreed upon by all regional countries, including China. 

Although China and ASEAN have been working on a South China Sea code of conduct for more than two decades, the Philippines claimed in November 2023 that it is pushing for a separate set of rules and regulations with its neighbors, excluding China.

Gu said Marcos' proposal is simply not possible because many ASEAN member countries would not come on board with a plan that will provoke China. "Most ASEAN members are friendly toward China, as time has proven that closer ties with China will greatly boost their economy, trade and investment and tourism."

Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, warned that the Philippines' move is destructive to the unity and cohesion of ASEAN, which are of utmost importance, and could even lead to the division of ASEAN itself. 

Wu criticized the recent provocative actions by the Philippines as "naive" and "veering off track." He noted that China is not the only claimant in the South China Sea, but more importantly, a key player in the negotiations regarding the disputes, and without China's participation, the "code of conduct" has no meaning. 

'Austin absence' exposes internal chaos, erodes US global image

As the farce of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's absence continues to unfold, the Pentagon revealed on Tuesday local time that the key cabinet member had undergone surgery for prostate cancer and had suffered complications.

Austin sits only below President Joe Biden in the chain of command for the US military and Biden learned about the diagnosis of prostate cancer only on Tuesday, according to the White House.

Days after Austin's unannounced hospitalization shocked the White House, Americans as well as the world, this lag in notifying a serious diagnosis again proves the dysfunction in the US' chain of command and control, Lü Xiang, an expert on US studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

Austin may have kept his health situation secret for the sake of his own career, but for the administration system, it is a huge loophole, Lü said.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks was on vacation in Puerto Rico when she was abruptly told to assume some of Austin's responsibilities on January 2. She was informed of the situation on January 4, the same day as Biden knew.

If Austin can keep his health situation a secret within the cabinet, he can also keep other information secret, Lü noted.

Considering the US is a global power with prominent military presence overseas, such a shortcoming in governance is not only a threat to US security, but also poses a major risk to global security, Lü said.

The Pentagon confirmed that Austin remained hospitalized on Tuesday. A spokesperson did not provide an update for when he would be discharged, but claimed Austin has full access to required secure communications capabilities and continues to monitor the US Department of Defense's operations, media reported on Wednesday.

Biden also has "complete confidence" in his defense secretary and plans to keep him in his position through his term, according to CNN on Tuesday.

Analysts said Biden may be inclined to keep Austin in the post at first as personnel changes amid whiting-hot presidential election campaigns could impact Democrats negatively, but such "protection" is likely to frustrate American voters and has already incurred fierce attacks from the Republicans.

Lü believes the farce of internal politics will also cause shock waves for US diplomacy.

The incident and potential personnel change adds to uncertainty in US foreign policy, and China, which the US describes as a competitor, has prepare for the uncertainty and future risks. The US' global image is again under question and its allies in different geopolitical blocs, be it QUAD or AUKUS, will have to carefully weigh US promises and actual commitment, Lü noted.