China flatly denied a report that President Xi Jinping had invited top European leaders to meet him in Beijing later this year, and was still awaiting their response, as tensions fray between Beijing and the bloc.

“I don’t know what’s their source of information,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Tuesday, referencing the South China Morning Post report. “I can tell you that is fake news,” he added, at a regular press briefing in Beijing.

The newspaper reported Monday that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez had been asked to meet the Chinese president in Beijing this November, citing a person familiar with the matter. The leaders hadn’t yet replied to Xi, according to the SCMP, which didn’t clarify when the invite had been extended.

The governments of France, Italy and Spain didn’t respond to the newspaper’s questions on the matter, and the German government refused to answer.

The Beijing meeting, if confirmed, would coincide with the Group of Twenty summit set to be held in Bali from Nov. 15-16. It would also likely follow a major Communist Party congress in China, scheduled for the second half of this year, where Xi is poised to secure a landmark third term in office. 

Hosting the European leaders would mark a return to in-person diplomacy with the West for Xi, who hasn’t left his country since the outset of the pandemic in January 2020 due to the nation’s zero-tolerance virus strategy. Instead, he has participated in overseas summits via video link. 

Foreign dignitaries visiting China during the pandemic have typically been hosted in cities such as Tianjin, outside the capital, with an exception made for the Beijing Olympics, which most Western democracies shunned. Xi declared a “no limits” friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin at that time, weeks before Moscow invaded Ukraine. 

News of the invitations comes as the European Union and China prepare to hold a high-level dialog on economy and trade Tuesday, according to an earlier statement from the European Commission. Ahead of the talks, Foreign Minister Wang Yi talked with Emmanuel Bonne, the diplomatic adviser to Macron, according to a Xinhua statement. 

Separately, European Parliament Vice President Nicola Beer landed in Taiwan on Tuesday, according to a statement from Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry, in the first official visit by a high-ranking member of the bloc’s legislative body. The visit is bound to anger Beijing, which objects to official contact between its diplomatic partners and Taiwan’s government. Beijing claims Taiwan as its territory, even though the Communist Party-led government has never controlled the island.

China once saw Europe as an important counter to US power, but relations soured after the EU sanctioned Chinese officials over accusations of human rights abuse in Xinjiang. Beijing responded by placing sanctions on European lawmakers, academics and others, leading the bloc to freeze a long-awaited investment deal. Since then, China has blocked trade with EU member Lithuania in a clash over Taiwan and refused to condemn Russia’s war.

That gulf in understanding on major geopolitical issues led to an April video summit between Xi and EU leaders being described as “a dialog of the deaf” by the bloc’s chief diplomat, who blasted China for refusing to discuss Russia’s war in Ukraine, human rights, or other issues in the relationship.  

At that time, China pushed for an economic dialog to be restarted and for the two sides to continue their cooperation on combating climate change, Nicolas Chapuis, the EU’s ambassador in China, said last month.