Top EU officials warned China’s leader Xi Jinping at a virtual summit Friday that any attempt to aid Russia’s war in Ukraine could hurt business ties between the two economic superpowers.
The EU and US worry that Beijing’s failure to condemn the invasion means it could be willing to help the Kremlin sidestep the impact of sanctions or even supply hardware to aid the war effort.
“No European citizen would understand any support to Russia’s ability to wage war. Moreover, it would lead to a major reputational damage for China here in Europe,” European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said.
“The business sector is watching very closely the events and evaluating how countries are positioning themselves. This is a question of trust, of reliability and of course of decisions on long-term investments.”
Von der Leyen insisted that “China has an influence on Russia and therefore we expect China to take its responsibility to end this war and that Russia comes back to a peaceful negotiations solution”.
The talks with President Xi — initially intended to focus on issues like trade and climate change — were overshadowed by Western fears of Chinese support for Moscow in its attack on Ukraine.
Chinese state media reported that Xi told the EU the two sides should “play a constructive role on China-EU relations and major issues concerning global peace and development, as well as provide some stabilising factors to a turbulent world”.
“We hope that the EU can form its own perception of China, pursue its own independent policy towards China,” Xi was reported to have said.
A Chinese foreign ministry official said after a first round of talks involving premier Li Keqiang that the two sides “agreed to work together to maintain peace, stability and prosperity in the world“.
– Frozen trade pact –
The EU’s relations with its largest trading partner had already been battered by tensions ahead of Moscow’s assault on Ukraine and the annual summit was skipped last year as ties frayed.
The exchange of tit-for-tat sanctions over the plight of China’s Uyghur minority, followed by Beijing’s trade coercion of EU-member Lithuania over Taiwan, soured the mood.
The downgrade in relations came surprisingly quickly after the EU and China secured the investment deal in late 2020 long sought by Germany.
Human rights concerns, and US pressure on the EU, sapped momentum, sowing distrust and sinking diplomatic ties.
– ‘No limits’ –
The tensions over Russia’s war on Ukraine now threaten to hit relations harder — even if the EU for now is shying off threatening sanctions on Beijing if its helps the Kremlin.
In a meeting with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Wednesday said that “China-Russia cooperation has no limits”, repeating a line used by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi.
European Council boss Charles Michel, who was also on the virtual summit, warned that the talks were not “business as usual”.
“Any attempts to circumvent sanctions or provide aid to Russia would prolong the war. This would lead to more loss of life and greater economic impact,” he said.
“This is not in anyone’s long-term interest. We will also remain vigilant on any attempts to aid Russia financially or militarily.”
But experts say the EU remains reluctant to go too far in pressuring Beijing as it fears hitting its mammoth trade ties at a time when soaring energy prices and inflation are already causing major economic pain.
“The idea of detaching China from Russia is a pipe dream,” said Sylvie Bermann, a former French ambassador to both Moscow and Beijing.