The leaders of the EU and China meet on Friday for a “difficult” virtual summit with two other countries at the top of the European agenda: Russia and Ukraine.
Beijing’s line of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has united the 27 EU states behind a tough stance on China after years of divisions fueled by the reluctance of some members of the bloc to jeopardize access to Chinese trade, investment and tourists.
“Member States are unified. It is not about divide and conquer,” a senior EU official said ahead of the summit. “It will be the toughest summit we have had. It is not business as usual.”
While Chinese diplomats insist it is a neutral party vis-à-vis Ukraine, rhetoric from the Chinese government and state media has strongly supported justifications for the invasion. by Russia.
This position puts Beijing at odds with the EU, which has hit Russia with punitive sanctions and supplied arms to Ukraine.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Charles Michel, President of the EU Council, will tell Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang that war “is not in China’s interest “said the senior official.
They will also make it clear that arming Russia or helping it dodge sanctions “will have consequences for EU-China relations”, an EU diplomat said, adding that this could include sanctions against China. “A war on European soil is an existential thing for us,” the senior official said.
EU policy towards Beijing had taken on a tougher tone following China’s de facto ban on Lithuanian imports in December, imposed after Vilnius allowed the Taiwanese government to open a representative office under the name of “Taiwan”.
China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan, sought to isolate Lithuania with the blocking of imports, but it provoked opposition from the 27 EU members and in January Brussels lodged a complaint with the Organization world trade.
“Europe is more united on China than it has been in years,” said Noah Barkin, China expert at Rhodium Group, a consultancy. The abandonment of a pro-China trade stance by the German government elected in December was “hugely significant”, Barkin said. “Germany is a leader in Europe.”
Even German companies, which are major exporters and investors in China, were “reassessing the risks”, he said.
In recent years, China has exploited divisions within the bloc. Germany has often prioritized friendly relations with Beijing, with 2.8% of its gross domestic product coming from sales to the Asian country, according to analysts at Rabobank, the Dutch bank. Other member states, including Hungary and Greece, have eagerly sought Chinese investment.
Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, told the Financial Times in February that the EU’s mood towards China changed when exports from other member states containing Lithuanian parts were also blocked. Beijing’s move was seen as a blow to EU single market rules guaranteeing unfettered trade between members.
“It’s a new tactic. . . When it was felt that the single market was the target, the attitude changed,” he added.
EU diplomats in Beijing said China’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had been a wake-up call.
“You can’t separate economics from politics now,” said one. “[To use] The language of China, Ukraine is a “fundamental interest” for us. . . Basically it’s life or death. We are prepared to take the economic blows ourselves.
Privately, Chinese officials and advisers admit they were caught off guard by the unity of Western countries’ response to the Russian invasion.
“Sanctions against Russia have gone beyond what the central government expected,” said a former Chinese official who now advises the Xi administration on trade relations with Moscow.
But Beijing has shown no sign of distancing itself from Russia. China said on Wednesday it was willing to push relations with Moscow to a “higher level”.
Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at Renmin University in Beijing, said China’s criticism of NATO’s eastward expansion in Europe as well as US and European sanctions against Russia were “very strong statements”.
“Disagreement over the Russian-Ukrainian conflict will certainly intensify,” Shi said.
A second European official argued that the EU was now more confident about China despite its annual trade of 671 billion euros in goods and services.
“The importance of the EU for China is greater than the other way around,” the official said. “China is trying to make domestic consumption the main driver of growth, but consumption is very low, it has to rely on exports. . . Is China willing to risk [sales in] Western countries to help Russia?
At their last summit meeting in September 2020, EU leaders largely focused on a deal to open up China’s huge market.
Less than two years later, this global agreement on investment is a thing of the past. After the EU sanctioned Chinese officials for alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Beijing retaliated against several European parliamentarians and lawmakers blocked ratification.
Reinhard Bütikofer, a German Green MEP who has been sanctioned by Beijing, said Berlin’s new coalition government – which includes his party – is much more skeptical of China than its predecessors.
Bütikofer said a pact between Russia and China signed last month formed an “axis” that sought to bring down the Western liberal world order. “They are revisionist powers. We have passed the point of no return. »
Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singaporean diplomat and ambassador to Russia, said EU pressure was unlikely to do much to separate Beijing from Moscow.
“China is in a big dilemma, but it will not break with Russia because it has no other strategic partner,” Kausikan said. “They made a mistake. They were taken for a ride [by Putin] but now they are stuck with him.
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing