What is an empty element?

But since both these parts are optional, it would mean that nothing (as in, absence of characters) matches this production.

That may be true, but the wording in the spec on this issue is quite clear. There are even examples for empty elements in the next paragraph.

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So the only way (in this context, with the surrounding wording and examples) to read

An element with no content

would be to include “content that (while matching the production) is completely empty” (i.e. zero-length, not even white-space).

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