China’s Silence on Ukraine and Europe’s Resolve Could Remake Sino-EU Relations

In a video meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday, Xi Jinping urged his French and German counterparts to pursue “maximum restraint” in responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war has forced Beijing into an awkward position of hedging between Europe and Russia in an attempt to maintain positive relations with each. But China’s reluctance to condemn Russia’s interference in Ukrainian sovereignty, even as the war drags into its third week, has not gone unnoticed in Europe, and appears to have strained Europe-China relations. 

Finbarr Bermingham at the South China Morning Post described how European rage at Russia has fueled suspicion towards China from across the spectrum

“The world just seems a totally different place than what we thought it was a week ago,” said Pascal Abb, a professor specialising in Chinese foreign policy at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt.

“I think it’s going to have repercussions beyond this question of how to deal with Russia. It is definitely going to shape our policies towards China as well.”

[…] “China is calling for de-escalation and dialogue, but has avoided taking sides and will not call Russia’s actions what they are – unprovoked aggression,” said [Nabila Massrali, EU foreign affairs spokeswoman].

[…] “We have zero expectation of China to deliver on this [diplomatic effort to end the war]. Everything we learned in the last few years through Covid and wider relations means we don’t trust China. And China should be worried, we’ve proven we can move fast. After this crisis, there will be more and more suspicion,” [an anonymous Western European diplomat] said.

[…] “Xi Jinping should use his leverage vis-a-vis Putin to help stopping this war of aggression. Nations are coming together globally to oppose Putin’s war. China should not be on the wrong side of history. Europe will not forget China’s choice,” said [German lawmaker Reinhard Buetikofer]. [Source]

Leaked censorship instructions from the Cyberspace Administration of China have directed internet companies covering the war to strictly control “incitement of Sino-Russian antagonism” or “viewpoints that support or adulate the United States.” Another internal censorship memo leaked from a corporate news outlet directed staff to “not post anything unfavorable to Russia or pro-Western.” Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers from The New York Times reported that some Europeans see China as having already chosen sides against them:

China’s efforts to distance itself from Russia have come too late, said [Sergiy Gerasymchuk, an analyst with Ukrainian Prism, a foreign policy research organization in Kyiv]. He said China would wait to see who prevailed in the war and seek to improve relations with the winner.

“Many decision makers in China began to perceive relations in black and white: either you are a Chinese ally or an American one,” said Mr. Gerasymchuk, who has been spending nights in a bomb shelter. “They still want to remain sort of neutral, but they bitterly failed.” [Source]

Xue Qing in The Diplomat argued that China’s stance will lead to a deterioration of diplomatic ties with Europe in the future:

China has always been aware that siding with Russia is not wise, especially in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), a region once oppressed by the Russians. Facing the invasion in Ukraine, even the most pro-Kremlin politicians in CEE have turned to condemnation of Russia. China’s lukewarm statements and onlooker role clearly cannot satisfy the CEE governments and publics. Beijing should not be surprised if more of them announce withdrawal from the “17+1” mechanism, China’s platform for CEE cooperation, and turn to Taiwan for closer ties this year.

China claims that it is a responsible major power and strives to foster global peace and development; however in the face of aggression, it has been trying to stay detached. European leaders now have reasons to doubt China’s capability to tackle tough international challenges and the credibility of its commitments.  […] [With] China-Europe relations already facing such severe challenges, any more challenges will make the already precarious trust frailer, and efforts to improve bilateral relations more difficult.

The China-Europe relationship is now being sorely tested by the Russia-Ukraine war. […] [If] China continues to blur its stance and merely watches from the sidelines, Beijing will harvest Russians’ fraternal friendship for sure, but it will also encounter more suspicious and hostile eyes from Europe. [Source]

In his “Watching China in Europe” newsletter, Noah Barkin, a senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund and managing editor at Rhodium Group, described how a shift in Germany’s and the EU’s grand strategy may put China under greater scrutiny:

[T]here is no question that the conflict and the joint China-Russia declaration of February 4 have strengthened those in Europe who frame the coming geopolitical challenge as one of systemic competition between democracies and authoritarian states. As a second German official put it to me: “Today it’s Russia. Tomorrow it could be China. We can’t be naïve any longer. We need to say goodbye to our old model. It worked for a long time. But not anymore.”

[…] The current crisis comes at a time when the European Commission is putting the finishing touches on its Strategic Compass, NATO is working on its Strategic Concept, and the new government in Berlin is embarking on the process of writing a National Security Strategy and a China strategy. All of these strategic documents will be seen in a new light now. The historic policy shifts in Germany in response to Ukraine will resonate across Europe and NATO—and the relationship with China will not be immune. 

[…] A second consequence of this crisis will be a renewed focus on strategic dependencies. In the span of a few weeks, Europe has taken the decision to end its reliance on Russian gas. The next step will be to broaden the dependencies debate to focus on Europe’s vulnerabilities in relation to China.

[…] In formulating its China strategy, I am told, Germany’s government could look for ways to address these risks through a combination of carrots and sticks: targeted government incentives for companies to invest in other markets and tighter restrictions on technology transfers, including through export controls and heightened scrutiny of research and development collaboration. [Source]

In an interview with The Diplomat, Jonathan Hackenbroich, a policy fellow for economic statecraft at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, described how China’s position on Ukraine might lead the EU to a more unified external policy vis-a-vis China, in partnership with other democratic allies:

Acceptance is growing across member states that China is posing a structural challenge and will continue to be a challenge for European countries. The joint Xi-Putin announcement of a new era in international relations drove this point home to all Europeans. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, bringing war back to Europe like it had not seen since the middle of the last century and despite all Chinese attempts to signal some ambiguity, clearly with the support of Beijing, is a wake-up call to the EU. It has rarely looked this united. Taken together with China’s demonstrated willingness to weaponize its economy and to pressure other countries into behaving according to Beijing’s own political vision, Europeans more and more see clearly that there is an increasingly important element of systemic rivalry in EU-China relations.

[…] We could see a greater integration of all the EU’s external policy dimensions following the Ukraine shock. The China-Lithuania dispute already underscored the importance of the debate around the anti-coercion instrument. The escalation has demonstrated exactly for what kind of situations the EU needs such an instrument, and what it is currently lacking the most: a credible tool powerful enough to deter coercive behavior and the ability to apply counter measures quickly, if needed.

[…] [Many] in Europe are aware that Taiwan could be the next Ukraine. This does not mean that Europeans will necessarily become more vocal on Taiwan, but China’s “understanding” of the Russian expansionist project, which has unified Europe like nothing else over the last years, is a wake-up call: Europeans have noted Japan’s, South Korea’s, and Australia’s support on Ukraine. China’s and Russia’s actions are closing the ranks between allies and like-minded partners. [Source]

The mood in Europe was already sour after China’s economic coercion of Lithuania, following Lithuania’s decision to exchange diplomatic offices with Taiwan. At a press conference on Tuesday, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis connected the Russian threat to Europe with that from China, stating that “both cases are about defending a similar principle” of a rules-based order. Responses to a recent MERICS poll on the development of the EU’s anti-coercion instrument showed that China’s handling of the Russian invasion is adding momentum to the EU’s future defense plans:

Alicia Garcia Herrero, Chief Economist for Asia-Pacific at the French bank NATIXIS and Senior Fellow at the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel

The European Commission’s proposal for a new anti-coercion instrument (ACI, presented on December 9, 2021) could not have been more timely. Gas imports from Russia could be weaponized in a Russian response to European sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine. In addition, China is boycotting imports from Lithuania and even Lithuanian components used in German exports directed towards China. So, the need for such an instrument seems clear.

[…] Given the lightning speed at which the EU’s external environment is worsening and the urgent need to have the ACI available as an option, it is very important to accelerate passage through the EU Parliament and the Council […]

Francesca Ghiretti, analyst at MERICS

The problem is that the EU has had a credibility issue so far […] but after Ukraine that may be changing. [Source]

Matej Šimalčík, Executive Director of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, described in a China Talk podcast interview how the Chinese government’s tacit support of Russia may not only damage China’s image in Eastern Europe, but also induce bureaucratic changes that improve EU decision-making during times of crisis:

[For] the countries on Ukraine’s border, this is not any distant crisis. It is something that we’re already seeing ramifications of, with tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Ukraine to Slovakia, Poland, Romania, and Hungary. These are direct impacts of the crisis of Russian aggression. And, of course, if China is going to be propping up Russia and providing it with its support, that’s going to impact how China is perceived in the region.

[…] The crisis may speed up the discussions on qualified majority voting so that [the EU] would be much more flexible and make decisions much faster in the future. And, of course, it’s probably going to speed up discussion about various measures to counter strategic corruption and corrosive capital within the EU, which have a detrimental effect on decision-making processes, precisely in these kinds of crises. [Source]

At Radio Free Europe, Reid Standish relayed experts’ assessments that China’s position on Ukraine risks losing Europe in the long term

“China may have believed that this conflict was in its interests because it had the potential to distract the United States and sow transatlantic division,” the Rhodium Group’s Noah Barkin told RFE/RL. “Instead, it has brought the EU and [United States] closer together and triggered a foreign policy rethink in Europe that could boomerang on Beijing.”

[…] “Either Beijing misjudged Putin and the effect his attack on Ukraine would have on Western resolve, or it judged that the long-term benefits of this conflict would outweigh the short-term risks,” Barkin said. “What seems clear is that China will have to start recalibrating its rhetoric soon or run the risk of losing Europe. Ukraine could well be a tipping point for EU-China relations.” [Source]

Perhaps, like much of the world, China may not have understood the significance of Europe’s reaction to the war. As EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated, “European security and defence has evolved more in the last six days than in the last two decades.” Germany shattered decades of defense policy precedent when it agreed to create a 100-billion-euro defense fund, commit to NATO’s two-percent-GDP military spending target, and send weapons to Ukraine. Majorities in Finland and Sweden are now eager to join NATO. Neutral Switzerland broke tradition to join European sanctions. Germany effectively canceled its Nord Stream 2 pipeline deal, and the EU committed to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds within a year. Summarizing these changes, both Scholtz and Macron described Europe as having entered a “new era.”

With such a rare and powerful demonstration of collective action and willingness to sacrifice long-held economic and political interests, Europe’s response to the war appears to have caught Beijing off guard. Philip Golub, professor of international relations at the American University of Paris, wrote in Le Monde Diplomatique: “Rather than leading to the long-range ‘redistribution of power in the world’ sought by Beijing, the war has solidified and remobilised the US-centred alliance systems, spurred western remilitarisation, and highlighted the structural financial and economic power of the core Western capitalist states.” Writing for Nikkei Asia, Minxin Pei outlined the unexpected implications of Europe’s solidarity and China’s feigned neutrality:

The unprecedented economic sanctions imposed by a united West on Russia have demonstrated the awesome power it possesses despite talk about its decline that is popular in Chinese leadership circles.

For China, which might have benefited from a prolonged period of tensions between Russia and the West, the paths ahead have suddenly become far more treacherous. Instead of being a net beneficiary of a conflict between Russia and the West, China now finds itself perilously close to being collateral damage.

Its support for Putin, most critically the Sino-Russo joint declaration of a strategic partnership “with no limits” on Feb. 4, has aroused widespread anger in the West and triggered calls for making China pay for aiding and abetting Putin’s aggression.

Regardless of the outcome of the war, China’s relations with the West, its largest export markets and main sources of technology despite the ongoing tensions, will never be the same again. [Source]


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