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How the Ukraine war has Europe reassessing its relationship with China

E.U. and Chinese flags in Brussels in 2020. (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
7 min

BRUSSELS — Russia’s attack on Ukraine has forced the European Union to rethink how it works with authoritarian regimes. Outraged by the war, the bloc feels deceived by Moscow’s doublespeak and deeply remorseful it did not break ties sooner.

That skepticism is expected to carry over into an E.U.-China summit on Friday — the first in nearly two years — as the E.U. recalibrates its relationship with one of its top trade partners.

Before the war, the E.U. was slowly and somewhat reluctantly adopting a tougher stance toward China. The events of the past month — and Beijing’s tacit backing of Moscow — have accelerated that shift, aligning the E.U. more closely with the U.S. position on China as a strategic adversary.

China’s attempt to play both sides of the Ukraine crisis is starting to crack

E.U. leaders plan to use the virtual summit to warn Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang against offering material support to Russia, whether with weapons or assistance in evading sanctions.

“Everyone will be watching to see how hard the Europeans press China,” said David Shullman, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.

Chinese officials, meanwhile, have been surprised and dismayed to see the E.U. align so closely with the United States, especially on Russia sanctions, said a person familiar with official discussions in Beijing on the China-E.U. relationship.

“The Ukraine situation has definitely pushed E.U. thinking closer to that of the U.S. … That will have negative outcomes for all parties,” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

Ahead of the E.U.-China summit, Chinese analysts and official media outlets appear to be trying to peel Europe away from the United States — prodding the E.U. to exert its independence. State broadcaster CCTV wrote in an editorial Tuesday that Europe, “which has been repeatedly stabbed in the back by the United States,” should not make the same mistakes and be “dragged into danger by the U.S.”

Chinese leaders are seeking to preserve access to the E.U.’s trading market while being cautious not to cross Russia, their greatest strategic partner, Shullman said.

“They’re going out of their way to try to convince friendlier European leaders that China is trying to play a positive role, without actually shifting their true position on Russia in any meaningful fashion,” he said.

China has tried to play both sides of Russia’s war in Ukraine — a strategy that looks increasingly untenable.

Putin and Xi, united at Olympics, air shared grievances against absent U.S. amid Ukraine standoff

In the run-up to the invasion, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin palled around on the sidelines of the Beijing Olympics, publishing a joint statement steeped in shared grievances with and anger at the United States.

As it became clearer that Putin’s “limited military operation” was a full-scale war playing out in public view, Beijing tried in some ways to distance itself from Moscow. Chinese officials have expressed dismay over the human cost of the war and touted humanitarian aid to Ukraine. In a video call this month, Xi told President Biden that the war in Ukraine is “not something we want to see.”

But Beijing has not signaled willingness to fundamentally change its position or use its “no limits” strategic partnership with Moscow to pressure Putin into ending the fighting. In the call with Biden, Xi implied the United States caused the conflict by failing to address Russia’s security concerns, telling the president, “He who tied the bell to the tiger must take it off.”

At the summit with the E.U., Chinese leaders will maintain a similar line and raise concerns about NATO expansion in Europe, according to one Chinese official familiar with plans for the meeting.

“The Chinese side is resolute and clear and will resist pressure to take sides in the Ukraine conflict,” said the official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Some E.U. leaders, unlike U.S. officials, appear to hold out hope that China could help pursue peace. This month, Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s top diplomat, suggested Beijing is uniquely placed to mediate between Russia and Ukraine — an idea dismissed by U.S. intelligence and other officials.

In a video call with Borrell on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China was “deeply grieved” over the fighting in Ukraine and would work with the international community to call for a cease-fire.

On Wednesday, hosting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the first time since the start of the invasion, Wang said relations between China and Russia had withstood “the test of changes in the international situation” and that Beijing is eager to take China-Russia relations to “an even higher level.”

China’s parroting of Russian disinformation about U.S.-backed labs for the study of diseases in Ukraine has been particularly harmful to Beijing’s reputation, said some U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

“Beijing hopes to come out of this with Europe seeing China as a wholly neutral party to the war in Ukraine, and with the old, comfortable status quo restored: with Europe divided and deeply hesitant to compromise trade and investment with China in the name of geopolitical security,” said Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister and now president of the Asia Society. “This is an unlikely outcome at this point.”

Indeed, China’s stance seems to be quickening the shift to a tougher European approach to Beijing.

Just over a year ago, the E.U. — led by Germany — was pushing to close an investment agreement with Beijing. The deal was put on hold following moves to sanction China over human rights abuses in Xinjiang and China’s subsequent sanctions on European diplomats and lawmakers.

China’s recent attempt to economically punish Lithuania for drawing closer to Taiwan angered many in Europe, injecting new momentum into calls for an anti-coercion instrument to protect E.U. member states from economic intimidation. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, E.U. countries will be even less likely to ignore China’s bullying of a small country, E.U. diplomats and analysts said.

With beer, rum and chocolate, Taiwan rallies behind Lithuania in spat with China

Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said there is a sense in Europe that “it is Russia today, but it could be China tomorrow, so we have to guard ourselves for this new reality that is emerging.”

The shift in mood is perhaps most striking in Germany, where the end of the Angela Merkel era and beginning of war in Ukraine have led to a security and diplomatic overhaul. Whereas Merkel put trade at the center of her China policy, the new coalition government has proposed a more values-based approach.

Helena Legarda, lead analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, said Chinese officials have signaled over the past few months a desire to bring E.U.-China relations back on track, but those efforts have been undercut by Beijing’s position on an issue of such existential weight to European countries.

“The ultimate goal of China is for the E.U. and the U.S. to go separate ways. What Russia has done and China, by not taking a stance, is achieving the opposite,” she said. “It’s brought the E.U. and the U.S. closer together and brought new life to NATO as the backbone of European peace and security.”

There is still some hope in Europe that China may step up, or at least that it can be persuaded not to make things worse by offering Russia arms or other support.

“The fact that China hasn’t provided active or material support is what’s keeping the relationship from really going off the rails,” Legarda said.

Kuo reported from Taipei and Nakashima and Cadell from Washington.