EU leaders to press China on stance towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

European Council President Charles Michel (R) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (L) take part in a virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Brussels, Belgium, 22 June 2020. [Yves Herman (EPA-EFE)]

EU leaders will press their Chinese counterparts on Beijing’s position and potential role amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in a virtual meeting on Friday (1 April), marking the first EU-China summit since June 2020.

European Council President Charles Michel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell are set to hold two sessions with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang in the morning and President Xi Jinping in the afternoon.

Last year’s exchange of tit-for-tat sanctions over the plight of China’s Uyghur minority, followed by Beijing’s trade coercion of EU-member Lithuania over Taiwan, have soured preparations for the meeting.

Deterioration of relations

Relations between Brussels and Beijing have suffered further following the latter’s failure to condemn Moscow’s assault on Ukraine. Some in the EU see the emergence of a Chinese-Russian bloc against the US, EU, and more liberal-minded allies.

For the EU side, the Chinese reaction in the next few days and weeks will be crucial, with Brussels keen for assurances from Beijing that it will neither supply Russia with arms nor help Moscow circumvent Western sanctions imposed over the invasion of Ukraine.

“It has very concrete significance whether China uses or does not use its influence to have ceasefire established, humanitarian corridors established, that it doesn’t help or helps to circumvent sanctions,” a senior EU official told reporters on the eve of the summit, in an uncommonly open language observed among EU circles on the matter.

“It will be the million-dollar question in the room,” the same official added when asked about a potential EU reaction if China takes a more supportive stance towards Moscow, for example, by helping the Russian government circumvent sanctions.

China needs EU trade

On whether the EU could impose sanctions on China even as a more crucial trading partner, an EU official said, “economic dependence goes both ways. But the Chinese dependence on Europe is stronger than the European dependence on China.” They argued that it would not be in the interest of the Chinese president to risk economic ties to the EU.

The EU official pointed out that over a quarter of China’s global trade was with the bloc and the United States last year, against just 2.4% with Russia.

It would also be unlikely that Xi Jinping would want to undermine his own political career, arguing that the Chinese government had long been able to promise stability and growth,

“Does Xi Jinping want to risk this? We don’t believe he does,” the same EU official added.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated China’s call for peace talks this week, adding the legitimate concerns of all sides should be accommodated.

Asked Wednesday what the communist leadership expects from the summit, a Chinese foreign affairs spokesman did not once mention Ukraine by name, according to Reuters.

“The international situation is unstable and volatile, and uncertainty is increasing,” the spokesman, Wang Wenbin, said, adding: “China and the EU are two major powers for world peace.”

But a senior EU official insisted that China “has to realise that, while it thinks that (the Russian invasion of Ukraine) has nothing to do with EU-China relations, actually it does”.

However, China’s unclear position on Ukraine is not the only potential point of conflict between European and Chinese leaders.

“The relations between the EU and China have been increasingly difficult already before that”, an EU official said.

The downgrade in relations came quickly after the EU and China secured an investment deal in late 2020 long sought by Germany, whose ratification was blocked by the European Parliament over human rights concerns.

Later in 2021, China began putting economic pressure on Lithuania after Taiwan was allowed to open a representative office in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. China stopped many of the imports from and exports to Lithuania.

The human rights issues and the economic coercion of Lithuania are expected to be discussed in the virtual summit meeting on Thursday.

In contrast to the last summit in 2020, a deepening of the economic relationship does not seem to be on the cards.

The investment agreement remains firmly blocked by the European Parliament’s veto, and ]trade rows have urged the EU to take a more assertive stance in its trade policy.

As the multilateral trade order crumbles away under geopolitical tensions, the EU is currently discussing an anti-coercion tool and has recently agreed on an international procurement instrument.

Both instruments will help the EU guarantee equal market access by leveraging its own market power.

Strategic partners

“China and the EU should be comprehensive strategic partners rather than systemic rivals,” Wang Hongjian, Chargé d’Affaires ad Interim of the Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the EU, wrote for EURACTIV.

He admitted that China and the EU “naturally, do not always see eye to eye with each other”.

“But looking back, differences did not undermine our cooperation at the Glasgow Climate Change Conference or around the negotiating table of the JCPOA,” Hongjian said.

“The two sides need to fully tap the potential of the dozens of dialogue and cooperation mechanisms they have established over the decades and work for greater synergy between our two economies,” he added.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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