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Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: BLOOMBERG

EU leaders plan to tell President Xi Jinping in a summit that China will hurt its global stature if it hands Russia an economic or military lifeline, a pointed message that will test Beijing’s commitment to keep the war from its damaging its ties with Brussels. 

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said China had a “special responsibility” to demand that Russia respect international law and to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty. 

“No European citizen would understand any support to Russia’s ability to wage war,” she said in a statement to Bloomberg ahead of the virtual summit on Friday. “It would lead to major reputational damage for China here in Europe.”

The war in Ukraine was expected to dominate the long-scheduled summit, with the EU chiefs ready to warn China that any help to Russia to avoid sanctions or to supply weapons will result in severe consequences, diplomats and officials said. The EU was not planning to spell out those consequences to maintain strategic ambiguity, but one official said they could include sanctions.

Europe is trying to strike a difficult balance: giving China a stern warning over Ukraine, human rights and trade issues, while still trying to maintain the EU’s objective of re-engaging with the Asian giant. Beijing, for its part, has sought to keep the conflict from pushing the two sides further into opposing blocs, sparing European officials the criticism it levels at their US counterparts and urging them to assert their strategic autonomy from Washington. 

China has rejected US assertions that Russia asked Beijing for financial and military support. Beijing’s envoy to the US said on March 20 that it has not sent “weapons and ammunition to any party.” Western nations have seen no evidence so far that China has materially helped Russia evade sanctions, according to several officials.

The two sides agreed to hold the summit in the fall after a long freeze in relations over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Now, with the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, decisions related to Russia are set to shape the relationship between Beijing and Brussels for years to come. 

“It is important to understand, that this is not only a defining moment for our continent, but for our relationship with the rest of the world,” Von der Leyen said.

Both sides were also likely to raise an EU-China agreement on investment, which has been blocked from ratification in Brussels over Chinese sanctions on EU legislators. Those penalties were a response to the bloc’s measures against Chinese officials over human rights abuses in Xinjiang. 

Expectations for concrete achievements are low, with one official saying the main accomplishment would likely be the mere fact that the summit was taking place. Western officials have, however, estimated in recent days that China may be less willing to co-operate with Russia due to its own economic interests, the brutality of the war and Moscow’s increasing isolation.

The EU has worked closely with the US to impose sanctions on Russia, but one official said the bloc was against bolstering a broader US policy seen as aiming to isolate China on the world stage. Von der Leyen, European Council chief Charles Michel and Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, will hold talks with Xi in the afternoon, after premier Li Keqiang in the morning.

Amid scepticism in Brussels that Russian President Vladimir Putin is serious about its negotiations with Ukraine, the EU leaders will urge China to use its influence to press for peace, with priorities including a ceasefire and humanitarian corridors for evacuating refugees. They will also urge Xi to hold talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, another official said.

‘Friend or foe’

China has declined to criticise Russia’s invasion, instead urging “all sides” to de-escalate tensions and blaming the US for precipitating the war by backing the expansion of Nato. Foreign minister Wang Yi pushed back against calls for China to take a clearer stance in a conversation on Tuesday with Borrell, saying that “complex security issues should not be dealt with in a simplistic approach of ‘friend or foe’ or ‘black or white.’”

Beyond Ukraine, the EU leaders were set to seek progress on a wide range of contentious issues, including reaffirming their solidarity with Lithuania in a dispute over China blocking Lithuanian products after Vilnius allowed Taiwan to open a representative office under its name instead of its capital, Taipei. Beijing views the move as a violation of its claim that both sides belong to “one China,” something it has long viewed as a prerequisite for diplomatic relations. 

The leaders may also bring up the need for reciprocity in trade relations, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan. The EU may announce after the summit that high-level talks will continue, one official said, with issues including an overhaul of the World Trade Organization, state subsidies, health and climate change. Other potential areas for co-operation are Covid-19 vaccines and food security, officials said.

Joerg Wuttke, head of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, told Bloomberg Television earlier Friday that Beijing’s position on the war in Ukraine would increase tensions in the summit. 

“We have a war on the border of the EU, and China has been rhetorically siding with Moscow,” Wuttke said. “So there will be a very strong point on Ukraine and I think the Chinese leadership might not actually appreciate that very much.”

Bloomberg News. For more articles like this please visit Bloomberg.com.


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