EU, China Hold Deadlocked Dialogue on Ukraine, Other Issues

On April 1, leaders of the EU and China met over videoconference for their first summit since 2020. Delayed last year after a fight over tit-for-tat sanctions, the meeting was hoped to calm geopolitical tensions between the two blocks, but the Russian war against Ukraine has forced a new wedge between China and Europe and complicated efforts at reconciliation. As a result, the summit provided a channel for each side to share their positions without finding much common ground. South China Morning Post’s Finbarr Bermingham reported a blunt assessment of the meeting from EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell:

In a stronger than usual rebuke of Beijing by Brussels’ top diplomat, Borrell told the European Parliament on Tuesday evening that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping wanted to “instead focus on the positive things”.

“China wanted to set aside our differences on Ukraine, they didn’t want to talk about Ukraine. They didn’t want to talk about human rights and other stuff and instead focus on positive things,” Borrell said during a fiery debate on China in Strasbourg, France.

“This was not exactly a dialogue, maybe a dialogue of the deaf … we could not talk about Ukraine a lot, and we did not agree on anything else,” he continued.

[…] “The Chinese side stuck to their general statements of wishing to see peace, we are a peaceful people, we don’t invade others, asking for de-escalation, but avoiding specific commitments or avoiding any sort of line on Russia,” he told lawmakers. [Source]

Spanish newspaper El País described the summit as having “a somber atmosphere, language without diplomatic vaseline, and direct and blunt warnings,” adding that it “was probably one of the most tense of the 23 bilateral meetings between the two commercial giants since 1998.” Stuart Lau at Politico described the sharp tone of the summit:

EU leaders on Friday warned President Xi Jinping not to undermine their sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin, delivering a thinly veiled threat that European companies could pull back from business with China if Beijing sided too closely with Moscow.

In an almost-one-hour conversation at a summit with Xi — described by an EU diplomat as “difficult” — Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, presidents of the European Commission and European Council, showed no signs of having bridged the massive gulf between Beijing and Brussels on the war in Ukraine. In a stark sign that the parties were at cross purposes, von der Leyen told a news conference the two sides simply had “opposing views.” [Source]

On the EU side, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen outlined the stakes of China’s position on the war, stating, “It is a defining moment because nothing will be like it was before the war. It’s now a question to take a very clear stance to support and defend the rules-based order.” As she saw it, China has a positive role to play: “This is not a conflict. This is a war. This is not a European affair. This is a global affair.” She added, “equidistance is not enough.” In his Watching China in Europe newsletter, Noah Barkin described how the EU flexed its geopolitical muscle

[The] EU also flexed some of the geopolitical muscle it has so often shied away from using in the past. Von der Leyen issued a thinly veiled warning to China that it was risking an exodus of foreign investment by siding with Russia. She took a not-so-subtle dig at China’s struggles to stamp out Covid-19 despite draconian lockdowns, alluding to the effectiveness of Western vaccines and offering Europe’s help. […] “What you are not doing or saying now, your silence, the words you are not using–all that is understood as support for Russia. And this will have long-term consequences for your geopolitical standing,” [one] EU official said, summing up the message to the Chinese side. “Von der Leyen teetered on the brink of threats,” the official added.

[…] “The verbal gymnastics were impressive. It was as if we were in two parallel meetings,” said the EU official. “China was trying to steer us toward the positive vision of the summit that they wanted–one in which there was no war in Ukraine.” [Source]

In his press remarks, President of the European Parliament Charles Michel echoed Von der Leyen’s call for China to take responsibility for ending the war:

Today’s summit is not business as usual, because this is a war-time summit.

[…] The EU and China agreed that this war is threatening global security and the world economy. This global instability is not in China’s interest and not in the EU’s interest. We share a responsibility as global actors to work for peace and stability. We call on China to help end the war in Ukraine. China cannot turn a blind eye to Russia’s violation of international law. These principles are enshrined in the UN Charter and principles sacred to China.

The EU, together with its international partners, has imposed heavy sanctions on Russia. Our goal is to put pressure on the Kremlin to end the war. These sanctions also have a price for us in Europe, but this is the price of defending freedom and democracy. Any attempts to circumvent sanctions or provide aid to Russia would prolong the war. This would lead to more loss of life and a greater economic impact. This is not in anyone’s long-term interests. We will also remain vigilant on any attempts to aid Russia financially or militarily. However, positive steps by China to help end the war would be welcomed by all Europeans and by the global community. [Source]

On the Chinese side, Premier Li Keqiang declared that China would pursue peace in “its own way,” distancing China from the EU’s position. Wang Lutong, director general of European affairs at China’s foreign ministry, brushed aside China’s responsibility for ending the war. The day after the summit, he stated, “The key of this issue is not in the hands of China – it’s in Washington’s hands, it’s in Brussels’ hands,” adding, “It’s up to Europeans to get it sorted.” 

Regarding Ukraine, the Chinese leaders appeared more interested in deflecting responsibility and peeling Europe away from the United States. President Xi Jinping called on the EU to “exclude external interference” from its relations with China and, as one Xinhua article stated four times, “develop its own perception of China.” Andy Bounds, Sam Fleming, Tom Mitchell, and Eleanor Olcott from the Financial Times described the Chinese leaders’ insistence on blaming other actors in the conflict:

China’s president called on the EU “to pursue an independent policy towards China” — a thinly veiled criticism of European solidarity with the US in blaming Russia for the crisis and in hitting Vladimir Putin’s regime with sanctions.

[…] Xi “did not condemn, but also did not defend” Putin’s invasion, according to a person present during the video call, adding that the Chinese president ignored a direct question from Michel as to whether he supported the invasion.

Instead, Xi referred to the importance of understanding Russia’s “security concerns in Europe”, the person said.

[…] In the run-up to Friday’s summit, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, told his Russian counterpart “the Ukrainian issue” was the result of “the long-term accumulation of security conflicts in Europe” as well as a “cold war mentality and group confrontation”. [Source]

A readout of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry enumerated Xi’s views on how to settle the Ukraine crisis, which criticized Western sanctions and diverted blame for the cause of the war away from Russia and onto other European countries: 

[..] The international community should keep creating favorable conditions and environment for the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine and make room for political settlement, rather than add fuel to the fire and heighten tensions.

[…] The root cause of the Ukraine crisis is the regional security tensions in Europe that have built up over the years. A fundamental solution is to accommodate the legitimate security concerns of all relevant parties. In this day and age, global and regional security frameworks should no longer be built with a Cold War mentality. 

[…] Parties […] must not let the global economic system be disrupted at will, still less allow attempts to politicize or weaponize the world economy as a tool to serve one’s own agenda … [Source]

Before the summit even finished, the Chinese side had already published a readout of the meeting through Xinhua. Following the summit, there was no joint press conference nor any joint statement. Spanish newspaper El Mundo wrote that “it is increasingly clear that the two blocs speak very different languages and understanding each other is becoming more and more difficult.” 

The diverging perspectives between both actors also emerged clearly in Chinese and European media coverage of the summit. An editorial by Chinese state-media tabloid Global Times wrote: “Influenced by Washington’s strategy toward China, some Europeans have enhanced their perception of China from the perspective of ‘cooperation, competition and rivalry’ … The main reason for this complexity [in the EU-China relationship] is Washington’s political manipulation.” By contrast, Europe’s perception of China’s alignment with Russia over Ukraine has given many Europeans no need for American pressure for them to agree with the EU’s 2019 labeling of China as a partner, competitor, and systemic rival. In France, which currently holds the presidency of the Council of the EU, a headline by Le Figaro on the day of the summit read, “China Tries to Coax Exasperated Europeans,” with the subtitle, “the objective is to dissipate the unease provoked by [Xi’s] tacit support of Vladimir Putin.” An editorial summarizing the summit published by Le Monde demonstrated the hardening of attitudes towards China:

The leaders of the European Union wanted to try to obtain from their virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang on Friday, April 1 a commitment from China to not circumvent Western sanctions against Russia. They ran into a wall. China remained deaf to Europe’s calls. The time for illusions, for those who still had them about Beijing’s attitude, is clearly over. 

[…] The communiqués from the meetings, hastily published by Beijing, reveal no element of convergence other than the usual empty formulations on the virtues of dialogue and peace. […] Beijing has committed neither to use its influence over Moscow to end the war, nor to refrain from helping Russia cushion the shock of Western sanctions.

[…] This Chinese refusal should not come as a surprise. Three weeks before the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin visited Beijing and signed an important joint declaration with President Xi sealing a “friendship without limits.” It seems hard to imagine that he did not at the time disclose to his Chinese interlocutors at least part of his military intentions in Ukraine. The fact that the war did not start until after the Beijing Winter Olympics is probably not a coincidence, either. [French]

Europe has noted Chinese state media’s amplification of Russian disinformation on the war, as detailed in a recent analysis by EUvsDisinfo, a project of the EU’s External Action Service:

Despite the EU and China’s diverging views, as Rhyannon Bartlett-Imadegawa from Nikkei Asia reported, the summit still has value as an opportunity to clearly communicate each other’s interests:

Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said the summit on Friday “was a meeting that was designed to make a position very clear. It was an opportunity used for both sides, to send a message to the other side.”

“It does seem to me like both sides have basically voiced their respective positions to each other and that there was very little agreement between the two sides,” she added.

However, given the dire state of the relationship, the fact that the meeting took place at all “is a sign that the dialogue channels are still open and that’s probably as good as it gets at the moment,” Oertel said.

[…] “Beijing does understand the red lines being drawn by the U.S. and the EU regarding the economic sanctions… Most likely China will stay out of these gray areas. It will not risk secondary sanctions from the U.S. and the EU in order to provide Russia marginal short-term aid that will not change the outcome of the Ukrainian conflict,” added [Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China at Chatham House]. [Source]

EU and Chinese leaders also discussed other aspects of their bilateral relationship overshadowed by the war. Some positive features included commitments to cooperate on COVID-19 prevention, climate change, energy transition, the digital economy, and artificial intelligence. Regarding more prickly subjects, the EU performed a ritual disavowal of Taiwanese sovereignty, but it raised concerns about cross-strait tensions, China’s economic coercion of Lithuania, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong. Notably, the two sides agreed to relaunch the EU-China human rights dialogue, although there was no agreement on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, which many in Europe have deemed dead after China’s refusal to condemn Russia and lift Chinese sanctions on Europe.

Some European media played on the April Fool’s Day timing of the summit to frame coverage with apt metaphors for the EU and China’s tumultuous relationship:

Elsewhere on Twitter, Leiden University’s Rogier Creemers argued that Europe badly needs to upgrade its current capacities in China analysis and expertise, particularly as the two find themselves increasingly on opposing sides of important geopolitical issues:


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