With its relationship with the US as shaky as it has been for decades, Beijing is becoming wary that its alignment with Russia during the Ukraine crisis could also cost it a relationship that has sometimes acted as a buffer in its competition with Washington: Europe.
For years, the Chinese leadership has pursued a “divide and conquer” approach to Europe, luring some nations like Germany and those in Central and Eastern Europe both with market access to the world’s second largest economy and with major Chinese investments in some of those countries.
The strategy – coupled with concerns about Beijing’s use of economic and other measures to punish countries that run counter to its interests – has led to growing distrust of Beijing in the European Union, but the bloc remains keen to find a middle ground with China that this allows tensions between China and the US to bypass.
President Xi Jinping’s decision to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine could undermine the EU’s willingness to work with China.
When China and the EU hold a virtual summit on April 1, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel plan to side with the Biden government and warn that China’s relations with the bloc would suffer if it were willing to provide substantial support for Russia’s military attack in Ukraine, according to foreign policy analysts in Europe.
At stake is one of the world’s largest economic ties, with $828 billion worth of bilateral trade in 2021 — and it has become increasingly important for China as relations with the US have soured.
At the heart of business ties is China’s trade with the EU’s powerhouse, Germany, which named Beijing its No. 1 trading partner for the sixth consecutive year in 2021. Berlin remains committed to engagement with China long after such calls have disappeared in Washington.
These links have provided an outlet for China – one it cannot afford to lose now that its strategic rivalry with the US has taken a potentially irreversible turn in terms of its support for Russia.
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To prevent ties with Europe from falling off a cliff, Mr Xi is expected to highlight the scope for China-Europe cooperation during the summit, say foreign policy experts close to the Chinese government. Much like he did with President Biden last week, Mr Xi is also likely to seek to portray China as neutral on the Ukraine conflict, the experts say, even as China maintains its partnership with Russia to confront the US-led West .
The Chinese leader is expected to advocate for Europe to play a leading role in the negotiations and will highlight Beijing’s plans to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
“This could be the most political EU-China summit ever,” said Noah Barkin, a Berlin-based analyst on China-Europe relations at Rhodium Group, a research firm. “The notion of China as a partner of Europe would begin to crumble if China went beyond its rhetorical support for Russia,” he said.
China was a topic at Mr Biden’s meetings with European leaders and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels this week, with NATO specifically calling out to China over concerns about military support and disinformation supporting Russia’s narrative of the war.
The last EU-China summit in December 2020 ended with a far-reaching investment deal between the two sides. At the time, four years of the Trump administration had strained Europe’s relations with Washington, although Europe was already labeling Beijing as a systemic rival and potential partner. Mr Biden, who took office soon after, began a rapprochement with Brussels – part of his effort to work with allies to pressure China.
The investment deal was frozen because Beijing blacklisted European lawmakers, China experts and diplomats in response to selective EU sanctions on four Chinese officials over Beijing’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang.
Over the past two years, the EU has progressively built defenses to protect itself from economic pressures from China, including progressive efforts to prevent state-subsidized firms from taking over EU firms and to block foreign-subsidized firms from winning EU government contracts obtain.
It has also filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization about Chinese retaliation against Lithuania, whose move last year to let Taiwan open a representative office there was followed by Beijing’s blocking of Lithuanian imports, including Lithuanian components of products from other EU countries.
Lithuania, which has close ties with Washington, was the first country to leave the 17+1 grouping that allowed smaller EU countries to meet directly with Chinese leaders. Others have said they may follow suit because of Beijing’s massive diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, a shift that could accelerate if Beijing openly sides with Russia in Ukraine.
Ms von der Leyen and Mr Michel plan to tell Mr Xi that China’s stance on Lithuania is an attack on the bloc’s internal market. They may also raise concerns about a Chinese military threat to Taiwan, diplomats say.
To better coordinate their responses to China, Washington and Brussels have worked to ease their own tensions. When Mr Biden was last in Brussels in June, the two sides announced a truce in their 17-year battle over subsidies for Airbus SE and Boeing co
and established a new forum, the US-EU Trade and Technology Council, to enhance dialogue and coordination on emerging issues, many of which have been inspired by China and its policies.
They have also established an EU-US dialogue aimed at identifying and addressing the economic and political challenges posed by Beijing.
Such transatlantic cooperation in recent months has led to a close vote on possible sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, based on insights US and European officials have gleaned about each other’s economic strengths and weaknesses.
Meanwhile, European business interests are careful not to push China too far.
Jörg Wuttke, President of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, said it was important that Europe did not present its message about Ukraine as a threat to China. “A major concern among Chinese officials is clearly that Europe is losing its independence and being pushed further into the US camp,” Mr. Wuttke said.
In Europe, officials approach the issue differently.
Days after Moscow and Beijing signed a joint statement on February 4 criticizing NATO expansion and declaring joint opposition to the pro-democracy “color” revolutions in the former Soviet bloc, von der Leyen used a speech at the Munich Security Conference to do so Rally against the Beijing-Moscow alliance.
“We are facing a blatant attempt to rewrite the rules of our international system,” von der Leyen said. “They prefer the rule of the fittest to the rule of law, intimidation over self-determination, coercion over cooperation.”
Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš asked about the message to China on his way to the EU leaders’ meeting with Mr Biden on Thursday, saying: “It’s a pretty easy choice.” Join Russia waging war on Ukraine, bombing women, children’s hospitals. Or find a way to work with Europe, with the US and with western democracies.”
Beijing’s need to salvage its relationship with Europe may now give Europe unique leverage.
However, their approach to China in the Ukraine crisis was fragmented. While the bloc has joined forces to warn Beijing against actively helping Russia, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has repeatedly said China is the only country with the clout and ties with Moscow and Kyiv to negotiate a peace deal – one apparent confirmation of Beijing’s potential, a go-between that many in Europe and the US have dismissed.
EU officials and most EU member countries have remained in recent weeks in favor of keeping lines with Beijing open, hoping to persuade China to press Moscow to authorize humanitarian corridors for civilians in Ukraine and to explore a diplomatic branch for the crisis.
When a senior Lithuanian official last week suggested canceling the EU-China summit in Ukraine “until we see which side China is on,” opposition was swift.
“It’s important to keep the lines of communication open,” a senior EU diplomat said last week, citing reports of China considering helping Ukraine.
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