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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivers her speech at the European parliament in January. The EU held a summit with China yesterday. [File]

China's leaders and senior EU officials held a video summit yesterday with tension rising over new tariffs targeting Chinese firms and European disquiet at Beijing's assertiveness on the world stage.

The heads of the EU's main institutions began talks on the coronavirus with top Chinese leaders, after Brussels infuriated Beijing by accusing it of a campaign of disinformation around the pandemic.

European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen began the summit at 0800 GMT with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

President Xi Jinping was expected to join later.

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China and the EU both say they want to strengthen ties, but the relationship is tangled in a thicket of disagreements on topics ranging from trade and investment rules to human rights and national security.

Yesterday's talks did not produce an agreement - nor even a joint statement - and a senior EU official said some high-level political impetus was needed to break the deadlock.

Beijing's ambassador to the EU said last week that yesterday's talks were a chance to make relations "more productive and substantive by seizing opportunities and addressing challenges".

But he rapped Brussels over plans for tougher rules for heavily subsidised foreign companies, which would particularly target Chinese firms, saying the EU was not practising the openness it preached to others.

Bruising trade war

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US President Donald Trump has pursued a bruising trade war with China and warned last week of "complete decoupling" while using derogatory language to assert that the novel coronavirus came from China.

The EU has taken a more balanced approach, characterising China as a "systemic rival" and competitor but also as a partner on some issues. The bloc's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has urged a hard-headed approach.

The EU has sought to challenge China on human rights issues such as Tibet and Hong Kong, where European capitals are extremely concerned about Beijing's proposed new security law.

The bloc's efforts to stand up to President Xi's increasingly assertive China have been stymied by a lack of unity among its 27 member states, many of which have been courted assiduously by the Asian giant.

A meeting of EU foreign ministers last month dedicated to China highlighted the bloc's struggles - Borrell voiced "grave concern" at Beijing's security clampdown in Hong Kong but said sanctions were all but out of the question.

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The European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, has announced plans for new legislation aimed at ensuring foreign firms backed by heavy state subsidies do not distort competition in Europe.

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Diplomatic Relations China EU
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