EU to tread fine line with China's Xi over Putin's war
Accusations that China is helping Russia circumvent Western sanctions and providing support for the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine will be the elephant in the room when China’s President Xi Jinping joins EU leaders for an online meeting on Thursday.
It is a marked shift for the agenda of the EU-China summit, which had been planned a long time in advance that comes after Europe’s leaders discussed Beijing’s potential role in the conflict when they met US President Joe Biden in Brussels last week.
On paper, China is neutral - but the EU isn’t convinced. According to Bloomberg, the EU already has evidence China is ready to supply high-tech components that Moscow no longer has access to because of sanctions. That may expose China to secondary sanctions issued from the US, which wants to punish those helping the Kremlin work its way around the sanctions.
While European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen would not go that far, she did say that Western allies continued to close loopholes, including those enabled by companies and other countries.
And while she did not mention China by name, NATO did, calling on “all states, including the People’s Republic of China”, to uphold the international order “abstain from supporting Russia’s war effort in any way, and to refrain from any action that helps Russia circumvent sanctions”.
And so, von der Leyen and her Charles Michel, her counterpart at the head of the European Council will not only try to preserve Europe’s strong economies ties with China but will also push him on opposing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bloody war. Some may say that approach is pragmatic. Others would say it is naïve for the EU to believe that strong diplomatic relations can lead to change. Brussels has a habit of condemning violations of human rights on the one hand and closing trade deals on the other.
Back in 2021, when the EU sanctioned four Chinese officials for their involvement in concentration camps for the Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, Beijing retaliated by blocking travel for a swathe of European diplomats, including several members of the European Parliament. It was only then that the EU halted the ratification of an investment agreement signed months before with China - which was heavily criticised by the US administration, and even some EU governments.
Countries who have had to deal with Russian oppression in the past have been most outspoken. China has a simple choice, Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Karins has said: “put your lot in with Russia, that is waging war against Ukraine, bombing women, children, hospitals, or find a way to work with Europe, with the US and with western democracies.”
And Finish Prime Minister Sanna Marin has said that Europe will have to make sure “China is on the right side of history with this war.”
But there are also more nuanced sounds, as the EU knows Beijing can play a fundamental role in a solution to the conflict. “China is the most important country. They can be crucial in the peace process. They have lots of leverage …. And so, we are all waiting”, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi said last week.
Maybe the outbreak of war in Ukraine will make Europe less insipid. The EU has mostly treated Russia with kid gloves - and we all know how that ended.
The war has brought about the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II and internal affairs ministers on Monday will discuss how to better coordinate the EU’s response. Almost four million people have fled Ukraine so far, according to the UN, and Europe is struggling to cope.
Ministers will look for ways to make sure cash quickly reaches front-line states, monitor movements of people and find ways to help Moldova, a poor country that is taking in large numbers of Ukrainians.
What the Eurocrat will also be watching:
Hungary will go to the polls on Sunday to elect its National Assembly, with Viktor Orban’s Fidesz likely to remain in power. But a six-party opposition coalition has been creeping closer, now barely two percentage points away from the ruling right-wing populists in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
Even though he has supported sanctions against the Kremlin, Orban has a good personal relationship with Putin and has refused to follow other countries in sending weapons to the Ukrainian government.
Orban’s position is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for the rest of the EU. Even Orban’s close ally, Polish President Andrzej Duda, has spoken out against Hungary‘s flirt with neutrality. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky singled out Budapest as a negative exception while heaping praise on other EU countries when addressing the European Council meeting last week.
As long as Europe is divided in its own ranks, it is hard to see how Brussels can come up with a credible foreign policy.