Beijing’s close ties to Russia despite the invasion
of Ukraine has raised fears in Western capitals.
Illustration by Ann Kiernan for POLITICO
By Stuart Lau
CRITICS OF BEIJING IN BRUSSELS have taken to calling it the April Fool’s Day summit.
The agenda for the virtual meeting between China’s top officials and the presidents of the European Council and Commission includes topics of “shared interest” like climate change, biodiversity and health, and a call by the European Union for the resumption of talks on human rights.
But underlying the conversations will be a single topic of importance: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and what it means for relations between China and the West.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression — and the West’s failure to prepare for it — has set off alarm bells in European capitals, where concerns are mounting over whether the Continent has gotten too cozy with yet another authoritarian country with the potential for bellicosity. There’s just one problem. Europe doesn’t have a clear idea of what to do about it.
“We will see at the April Fool’s Day Summit, whether the EU is already able to apply the Russia lessons learned recently to its China relations,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, a German Green party grandee and the chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China.
Friday’s meetings between Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel will not produce a joint statement. The leaders do not plan to hold a joint press conference. EU officials have said there will be no deliverables. So for many China watchers, the real questions the summit will answer are: To what extent has Europe learned from its mistakes with Putin? And is it really going to start pushing back harder against Beijing?
“In the past, China has had success driving a wedge between the EU and the U.S. by offering Europe carrots in areas like market access and climate,” said Noah Barkin, a visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a U.S. think tank. “It would not be surprising if Xi tried this again at the summit on April 1.”
On the other hand, Barkin added, European officials “will want signals from Xi that there are red lines in China’s relationship with Russia — that there are limits to what Beijing will go along [with].”
Tensions between China and the EU were mounting even before Russia’s assault on Ukraine, but Xi’s embrace of Putin before and during the conflict has raised them to a new level.
When Xi last set foot in Western Europe in March 2019, the Chinese president took note of what was a new — and, for him, slightly offensive — label the EU had used to describe Beijing in what was then a recent strategy document. “I thought we were good friends,” Xi told the French, German and Commission leaders. “But now, we are systemic rivals?”
The intervening years have done little to improve relations, as the coronavirus pandemic highlighted European dependence on Chinese manufacturing and clashes over human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang escalated into salvos of mostly symbolic sanctions and countersanctions. A planned EU-China investment deal was put on ice last year, and a spat over relations between Lithuania and Taiwan has flared into a trade dispute between two of the world’s largest economic blocs.
During the pandemic, senior Communist Party officials conceived a new political slogan: dōngshēng xījiàng, meaning the rise of the east and the descent of the west. The reasoning behind it included China’s belief that it has had “systemic advantages” in tackling the coronavirus, as well as a long-held belief that the country’s state-backed technological advancement will soon put it in a position to overturn the Western world order.
It is in this lens that China’s strategic alignment with Russia was born. Putin’s last trip out of Russia before the war was to Beijing, where he attended the Winter Olympics and signed what the Chinese call a “no-limits” partnership agreement with Xi. The agreement between the two men declared an intention to challenge the Western order, based on democracy, freedoms and human rights. It was quickly denounced by European officials.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that Moscow and Beijing were seeking to replace the existing international rules. Her foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, described the joint statement as a “revisionist manifesto to review the world order,” adding that “Russia and China are becoming more and more assertive, willing to restore the old empires that they have been in the past.”
The war of Ukraine has injected a shiver of fear into the already frosty relations, as Beijing’s embrace of the Kremlin even as Russian bombs devastate Ukrainian cities crystallizes a view in many European capitals of China as a potential challenger to its post-Cold War world order and security architecture.
Chinese officials have voiced concerns over the humanitarian situation in Ukraine but refrained from criticizing Russia. Beijing abstained in most U.N. votes condemning Moscow’s aggression, and a Chinese judge in the U.N. top court voted against Ukraine’s bid to ask Russia to stop the war.
Xi — who once described Putin as his “best friend” — has emerged as one of the biggest obstacles to the West’s efforts to inflict economic pain on Russia to punish it for the invasion of Ukraine. Beijing has lashed out at Western sanctions and vowed to keep business running as usual with Russia.
EU leaders have also been warned that China has considered giving military assistance to Russia, according to a senior EU official, and Beijing has amplified the Kremlin’s talking points, condemning NATO’s description of Russia’s adventurism as an “invasion” as “stupid and shameless.”
Two days before the EU-China summit and more than a month into the war, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov traveled to China and met with his counterpart, Wang Yi.
Wang, according to Chinese state media, told Lavrov that “China-Russia relations have withstood the new test of changing international dynamics,” and “demonstrated a tenacious momentum for development.”
“China is willing to work with Russia,” Wang added. On the subject of Ukraine, he praised what he called Russia’s efforts in “preventing large-scale humanitarian crises.”
In the runup to the summit, Western officials have warned of consequences for Beijing if it hinders the pushback against Russian aggression.
During his European tour last week, U.S. President Joe Biden said he had called on the EU and NATO to set up a new taskforce to scrutinize violations of their sanctions on Russia by the likes of China. His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, also warned that there would “absolutely” be “consequences” if Beijing helped Moscow evade sanctions.
“I made no threat [to Xi] but I pointed out the numbers of American and foreign corporations that had left Russia as a result of that barbaric behavior,” Biden said in a news conference in Brussels last week, recalling a phone call he had had with the Chinese leader. He added that China “understands that its economic future is much more closely tied to the West than it is to Russia.”
Bernd Lange, chair of the European Parliament’s trade committee, similarly said Beijing should take note of Europe’s resolve.
“If China chose to side with Russia and support their war of aggression it must be clear that two things would happen: There would be an immensely high economic price to pay and they would divide the world into the sort of blocs they have rightly warned for long about,” said Lange, a German MEP from the Socialists and Democrats group, and from the same party as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. “That cannot be in anyone’s interest, not in Europe’s and not in China’s.”
Jörg Wuttke, president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China who has lived in Beijing for a quarter century, said the sanctions against Russia had “shown the resolve of European governments, companies and people.”
“Decoupling with Russia will be near complete, indicating what the West might be willing to pay if China sides with Russia.”
Words into inaction
For all the statements of resolve, however, von der Leyen and Michel will have to satisfy a wide array of member countries when they speak to their Chinese counterparts.
“There will be people saying, this is an opportunity to peel China away from Russia, and we have to appeal to their to their good sense, or their material interests,” said Aaron Friedberg, an academic at Princeton University and author of the recently published “Getting China Wrong.”
“I think it’s become clear that Xi Jinping has no intention of doing that,” Friedberg said. “China is not going to abandon its relationship with Russia.”
Some smaller EU countries, like Lithuania and the Czech Republic, have tried to mobilize a common response, warning that the while the conflict with Russia burns, the clash with China is pushing forward just as inexorably. “If the war in Ukraine is a hurricane, then through that lens China is climate change,” Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský told local media last week.
But the EU’s biggest countries, including Germany and France, have advocated a conciliatory tone, with diplomats saying they hoped to talk Beijing out of aiding Moscow. They argue it would be premature to criticize China for its current position, given that there is not yet any evidence to show, for instance, that China is arming Russia.
And then there’s the outlier in Hungary. Last week, as unarmed civilians were being bombed in Mariupol, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán traveled to Serbia, to take the inaugural train ride on part of the new Budapest-Belgrade railway network, which was built and is managed by Chinese state-owned companies.
For years, the EU led by Germany has hoped to achieve Wandel durch Handel — change through trade — in countries like Russia and China, hoping that economic liberalization would put the countries on the road to democracy.
With Putin’s fully fledged war and China’s authoritarian turn, the EU has now given up that fantasy. But the vast economic interests built over the past decades have left Europe dependent on Beijing: China overtook the U.S. to become the EU’s biggest trading partner in goods in 2020. Meanwhile many smaller Eastern European member countries have been reluctant to leave the China-led 16+1 grouping, as Lithuania has, for fear of economic retaliation.
Therefore, while the U.S. has declared that it sees China as a major geopolitical, technological and ideological challenge, Europe has been reluctant to take a tougher line.
“We are very, very far away from considering the China threat at the same level of Russia,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told the European Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday, hours after getting off a call with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang.
“Russia is certainly a big challenge for the countries nearby … [whereas] China as a military danger or threat for the European Union is not in our mindset. Certainly not,” Borrell added.
“It’s not in our interest to lean Russia toward China in order to create a great alliance of China plus other like-minded countries and to create a bloc of countries that don’t have our democratic system. I don’t think it is in our interest.”
It’s comments like that that are causing those who want a harder line on China to say that it’s quite fitting that the summit is taking place on April 1.