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EU opens probe into China's medical device market

Brussels has launched a wave of investigations against China in the past few months (Ina FASSBENDER)
Brussels has launched a wave of investigations against China in the past few months (Ina FASSBENDER)

The European Union on Wednesday announced a probe into China's medical devices market, prompting an immediate accusation from Beijing that the bloc was engaging in "protectionism".

Brussels suspects China is favouring its own suppliers for  the procurement of medical devices. The EU's official administrative journal, announcing the probe, set out ways that could be happening, including through a "Buy China" policy.

The EU also has concerns that China may have restricted imports and imposed conditions "leading to abnormally low bids that cannot be sustained by profit-oriented companies," the notice in the journal said.

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In response, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the investigation would "damage the EU's image".

"All the outside world sees is it (the EU) gradually moving towards protectionism," said the spokesman, Wang Wenbin, calling on Brussels to "stop using any excuse to groundlessly suppress and restrict Chinese business".

China's medical devices market is the second largest after the United States, worth around 135 billion euros in 2022 ($145 billion), according to a 2023 report by China-focused think tank MERICS.

The EU probe is the first under the bloc's International Procurement Instrument which seeks to promote reciprocity in access to international public procurement markets.

"The... restrictive measures and practices put at a significant and systemic disadvantage (European) Union economic operators, goods and services as they systematically favour the procurement of domestic products to the detriment of imported ones," the official journal said.

If the investigation finds unfair behaviour by China, the EU can limit Chinese companies' access to the 27-nation bloc's public procurement market.

The journal said the investigation would conclude within nine months, although the European Commission can extend this by five months.

Beijing is "invited to submit its views and to provide relevant information" and can hold consultations with the European Commission -- the EU's trade authority -- "to eliminate or remedy the alleged measures and practices," the text said.

Brussels wanted to "achieve a level playing field in our procurement markets for producers of medical devices, on both sides," EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said.

"Regrettably, our repeated discussions with China on this trade irritant have been fruitless," he added.

In a statement, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said Washington "will follow with interest the European Commission's investigation".

"The International Procurement Instrument is a trade tool that can potentially help address the unfair procurement policies and practices pursued" by China, Tai added.

- Slew of probes -

The EU has launched a wave of investigations targeting China over the past few months, particularly into green tech subsidies.

The EU provoked Beijing's ire in April after announcing an investigation into Chinese wind turbine suppliers.

Other probes have focused on Chinese subsidies for solar panels, electric cars and trains as Brussels seeks to move away from reliance on cheaper Chinese technology.

On Tuesday, the commission announced surprise raids on the EU offices of an unidentified company that makes and sells "security equipment" as part of a probe into foreign subsidies.

The Chinese chamber of commerce in the EU denounced the raids in the Netherlands and Poland against a Chinese company.

The EU has also adopted laws that often have China in their sights.

The European Parliament on Tuesday approved a ban on products made using forced labour. Supporters hope it will be used to block goods from China's Xinjiang region where the Uyghur Muslim minority is said to endure many rights abuses.

The latest investigation was announced after German authorities arrested an aide to a far-right German MEP, Maximilian Krah, on suspicion of spying for China.

raz-rmb-bys/caw