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'Not Business As Usual': EU Prepares For Tense China Summit Amid Ukraine War

Chinese President Xi Jinping (top left), European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (bottom right), and European Council President Charles Michel will be meeting for a virtual summit at the beginning of April. (file photo)

When European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, president of the European Council, meet for a virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 1, they plan to warn Beijing that there will be consequences if it provides aid to Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine.

The high-stakes summit comes as ties between China and the European Union are more delicate than ever, as Beijing’s alignment with Russia during its war in Ukraine has undercut its strained relations with Brussels, which were already rattled by a series of escalating trade and geopolitical tensions.

“At the China summit, there is a big agreement among EU representatives that this is not business as usual and Brussels should not be naive,” a senior European diplomat told RFE/RL

The Ukraine war -- and China’s warm relationship with the Kremlin -- will overshadow the meeting at which the EU is looking to show its hardening line toward China and warn against any active support for Russia at the summit.

Beijing’s partnership with Moscow has been in the spotlight since Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin inked a strategic pact in early February, but focus has grown following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A Western intelligence report alleged that China was aware of the Kremlin’s invasion plans and even asked Moscow to delay them until after the 2022 Winter Olympics, while U.S. officials have said Russia asked China for military equipment and economic support after being hit by Western sanctions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on February 4.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on February 4.

China has denied both reports and has so far quietly adhered to Western sanctions against Russia, but Beijing has also shown no signs that it will abandon the strategic relationship it has forged with the Kremlin.

At the summit, Brussels is looking to hammer home to Beijing that its alignment with Russia could harm its ties with the EU, which is one of the world’s greatest economic relationships, totaling $828 billion in bilateral trade in 2021.

“It’s clear that Russia is delighted to have China by its side and it’s clear that this has emboldened Moscow,” another senior European diplomat told RFE/RL. “China has to exert influence over Russia to achieve a cease-fire, to create humanitarian corridors that are working, and ultimately to start peace negotiations. But it probably cannot act as a mediator in a classical sense.”

Russia And China

Beijing has sought to portray itself as neutral throughout the crisis in Ukraine and aimed to distance itself from Moscow’s invasion, but China has also refrained from criticizing Russia and often echoed its talking points about the root causes of the war.

But China’s diplomatic dance is also proving increasingly difficult to maintain as the Ukraine war enters its second month.

U.S. President Joe Biden gestures as media representatives raise their hands to question him during a press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on March 24.
U.S. President Joe Biden gestures as media representatives raise their hands to question him during a press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on March 24.

China was already in focus during meetings between NATO and European leaders with U.S. President Joe Biden on March 24-25 in Brussels, during which the Western alliance called out Beijing over concerns about Chinese military assistance and disinformation supporting Russia’s narrative around the war.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told RFE/RL that there is “new momentum” forming in how the EU views China and that Beijing’s current line toward Russia’s invasion is untenable.

“You can't sit this one out and by sitting on the fence you [make] it very clear: Either you're supporting Russia -- either you're supporting their war on Ukraine -- or you're not,” Landsbergis said.

At the summit, the European strategy is to state the costs of more outright support for Russia and highlight that it could be at the expense of the wider relationship with the EU. Those ties have often been used as a buffer by China amid its competition with the United States and have become more important for Beijing as tensions with Washington have grown.

China’s two largest trading relationships are with the EU and the United States, and Beijing could be unwilling to jeopardize ties with Europe while facing the headwinds from the Ukraine war, a growing COVID outbreak inside China, a financial crisis in the country’s property sector, and a crucial Communist Party congress in the fall at which Xi is looking to extend his rule.

Noah Barkin, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said that gives Brussels added leverage.

“Brussels is betting that Xi will not want to alienate the EU, particularly at a sensitive time,” Barkin told RFE/RL.

EU officials do not expect Beijing to break in its partnership with Moscow and do not believe the bloc should be issuing threats. But they have already considered responses, such as limiting Chinese access to the single EU market, if China openly sides with the Kremlin or arms Russian soldiers, according to four senior European diplomats.

A New Era

The warning from the 27-country bloc comes amid a downward trajectory in the EU-China relationship and a growing alignment between Brussels and Washington on China policy.

In December 2020, after the last EU-China summit, both sides agreed to an ambitious investment treaty following four years of souring relations between Europe and the United States under the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump.

After taking office, Biden moved to improve ties with his European counterparts and the EU’s relations with China have since faced several obstacles. For instance, the far-reaching investment pact has been frozen since May due to Beijing blacklisting a group of European lawmakers, experts, and diplomats over the EU's sanctioning of four Chinese officials over rights violations against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s western Xinjiang Province.

The bloc has also introduced new forms of legislation to guard against Chinese economic pressure and also logged a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) over Beijing’s retaliation against Lithuania for letting Taiwan open a representative office in Vilnius in 2021. China responded by blocking Lithuanian imports, including components from the Baltic nation in products from other countries.

In addition to China-Russia ties and the Ukraine war, the summit is also set to cover the trade dispute with Lithuania, Chinese abuses in Xinjiang, and Taiwan.

“Changing the EU’s approach to China to take into account that rivalry is now the dominant mode means lots of hard work behind the scenes in order to reduce dependence on China,” Thorsten Benner, the director of the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute, told RFE/RL. “Europe won't drastically alter its economic ties with China overnight, but it needs to speed up the process of adjusting.”

Europe's Careful Path

While the summit is an opportunity for the EU to showcase its unity in pressing China against actively helping Russia, European Union officials have also signaled a preference from member states to keep lines open with Beijing and follow a middle path that does not alienate China or get Brussels enmeshed in wider U.S.-China tensions.

China has had past success driving a wedge between the EU and the United States with promises and opportunities about expanded market access and climate change cooperation, and many analysts predict Xi will play similar cards again during the virtual meeting.

“There is still a belief in Beijing that when push comes to shove, Europe will prioritize the business relationship over all else,” said the German Marshall Fund’s Barkin. “But over the past year Beijing has repeatedly misread Europe.”

The Ukraine war has marked a turning point for Europe, with Brussels and its member states greenlighting severe economic sanctions against Russia and moving to supply military and security assistance to Kyiv that many countries had previously opposed and that the Kremlin had not expected.

While the EU is still looking to chart its own course in dealing with China, Barkin says that Beijing runs the risk of counting on old assumptions about European policy.

“Misreading Europe on Ukraine would have far more serious consequences,” said Barkin. “It could be a tipping point for EU-China relations, tilting the balance decisively toward systemic rivalry and away from any talk of partnership.”

RFE/RL Multimedia Editor Ray Furlong contributed to this report
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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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