‘The Million Dollar Question’: War in Ukraine set to take center stage in tense EU-China summit
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is expected to take center stage at a high-level virtual meeting between European and Chinese leaders on Friday, following months of strained relations.
Brussels is determined to push Beijing to maintain a hands-off, equidistant approach to the conflict, fearing that any sort of intervention could give the Kremlin a much-needed boost to revive its stalled military campaign.
China is under intense scrutiny from the international community for its deliberately ambiguous role in the war, which has now entered its second month with no resolution in sight.
On the one hand, Beijing has voiced support for Ukrainian independence, called for “maximum restraint” and even offered to help secure a ceasefire.
But on the other hand, he criticized Western sanctions against Russia, denounced NATO for its “cold war mentality” and abstained United Nations resolution who condemned the invasion.
US officials have warned that China is willing to provide Moscow with economic and financial aid to deal with the fallout from the harsh sanctions and is also considering sending military aid.
China has vigorously denied these accusations. Brussels says it has so far seen no indication of military aid.
But a meeting on Wednesday between Chinese and Russian foreign ministers Wang Yi and Sergei Lavrov sent a strong signal that the two countries stand together.
“Both sides are more determined to develop bilateral relations and are more confident in promoting cooperation in various fields,” Wang said as he welcomed his counterpart for a meeting. two day meeting focused on Afghanistan.
“China is willing to work with Russia to lift China-Russia relations to a new level under the guidance of the consensus reached by the heads of state.”
In a recent column published on Euronewsa senior Chinese official adopted a more conciliatory tone, calling for peace to be restored “as soon as possible”.
“China and Europe have been victims of wars and have enjoyed peace and stability. The current situation in Ukraine is something China does not want to see,” wrote Wang Hongjian, Chargé d’Affaires at the Chinese Mission to the EU.
EU leaders will try to decipher the mixed messages and demand that China avoid interfering in the conflict and lend a hand to Moscow, a scenario that would mark a turning point in the evolution of the war.
Beijing has been a strong supporter of the international principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in internal affairs, which Russia is currently violating.
“China has played a balancing act, keeping a stance that suits its own interests,” said an EU official speaking on condition of anonymity, calling the Ukraine issue “a million dollar question”. dollar”.
The EU’s priority will be to ensure that Beijing’s ambiguity does not turn into “overt support” for Russia that circumvents Western sanctions or props up the damaged economy.
Brussels believes that China, due to its fruitful trade relations with the EU and the United States, loses out against a possible intervention in favor of Moscow, whose economic ties are negligible in comparison.
“China has a special responsibility as a permanent member of the UN Security Council,” the official noted. “He must realize that the war is not just about Europe but is a danger to the entire rules-based world order and has an impact on the global economy.”
The EU front will be represented by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and High Representative Josep Borrell.
In the morning, they will meet with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and then exchange views with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the early afternoon.
The meeting will be entirely virtual and will last five hours on Friday.
An increasingly strained relationship
The 23rd EU-China summit was scheduled before Vladimir Putin ordered the brutal invasion and forever changed the geopolitics of the continent. The meeting was originally convened to address the wide range of tensions that have plagued relations between the two sides in recent years.
Foremost are the accusations of economic coercion against Lithuania. The Baltic state says China is punishing the country for allowing Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing considers a breakaway province, to open a de facto embassy in Vilnius.
The European Commission has collected evidence suggesting that China is refusing to clear Lithuanian goods through its customs system, rejecting import applications and pressuring EU companies to remove Lithuanian-made components from their supply chains.
China has denied the existence of such a systematic policy, but the justification was not enough for the executive, which decided earlier this year to open a court case before the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The dispute with Lithuania has only worsened the state of bilateral relations, which have already been sorely tested since March 2021.
In this fateful monththe EU, in coordination with international allies, imposed a limited set of sanctions on four Chinese officials and an entity suspected of involvement in human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslim minority.
The West has repeatedly stated that serious abuses, such as mass arbitrary detention, torture and forced political indoctrination, take place in the concentration camps located in the Xingjian Autonomous Region.
China has lashed out at the allies, calling the accusations “nothing but lies and misinformation”. In a tit for tat reaction, Beijing sanctioned ten individuals and four European entities, including five members of the European Parliament.
The reprisals against democratically elected representatives have shocked Europeans and prompted a sudden rethink of EU-China relations. A parliamentary resolution called the decision “an attack on the European Union and its Parliament as a whole”.
In the same text, MEPs voted to freeze a controversial investment deal that was agreed in principle in December 2020 and which aimed to increase access for EU investors and companies doing business in China, a notoriously hermetic market.
The deal, which President von der Leyen once called an “important milestone,” remains stuck in a stalemate as Beijing refuses to lift sanctions on lawmakers.
Trade barriers, Taiwan, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and human rights are all expected to be discussed at Friday’s summit. Climate change, digital regulation and post-coronavirus economic recovery, less controversial topics where compromise is easier to find, will also be on the agenda.
EU officials expect a “frank” discussion to address the multiple points where the two sides diverge in an “honest, open and constructive” manner.
Nevertheless, the dark cloud of war in Ukraine is about to cast a shadow over the entire meeting, possibly marring all other topics of conversation.
“I don’t see – without overcoming this point – how you can move or make progress on other issues,” Ricardo Borges de Castro, associate director at the European Policy Centre, told Euronews.
“This conflict, and the fact that we are on different sides, could contaminate other problems that EU-China relations have had over the past two, three years. And, in fact, my assessment is that we are on a negative downward trend in EU-China relations.”
Notably, the summit will not produce a joint statement, which is the common outcome of high-level summits of this type. The absence reflects that the meeting is neither “routine” nor “business as usual”, officials said.
“The big lesson of the current war is that having business and dependencies on countries that don’t share your values can come at a huge cost. The lesson that many Europeans could [draw] is that we may have to rethink our relationship with China and even maybe challenge this idea that China is a partner, a competitor and a rival,” said Borges de Castro.
“This is not just a watershed moment for Europe, but it’s a watershed moment for EU-China relations.”