'The million dollar question': Ukraine war poised to take centre stage at tense EU-China summit

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By Jorge Liboreiro  & Pedro Sacadura
The Ukraine war will loom large over the virtual summit between the EU and China.
The Ukraine war will loom large over the virtual summit between the EU and China.   -   Copyright  Yves Herman/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is set to take centre stage during a virtual high-level meeting between EU and Chinese leaders on Friday, that comes on the heels of months of strained relations.

Brussels is bent on pushing Beijing to maintain a hands-off, equidistant approach in the conflict, fearing any sort of intervention could offer the Kremlin a much-needed boost to re-energise its stalled military campaign.

China is under intense scrutiny by the international community for its deliberately ambiguous role in the war, which has now entered its second month with no resolution in sight.

On the one hand, Beijing has expressed support for Ukraine's independence, called for "maximum restraint" and even offered help to secure a ceasefire.

But on the other hand, it has criticised Western sanctions against Russia, denounced NATO for its "Cold War mentality" and abstained on a United Nations resolution that condemned the invasion.

United States officials have warned China is willing to provide Moscow with economic and financial aid to weather the fallout of the hard-hitting sanctions and is also contemplating sending military help.

China has vigorously denied the accusations. Brussels says it has so far not seen any indication of military aid.

But an encounter on Wednesday between the Chinese and Russian foreign affairs ministers, Wang Yi and Sergei Lavrov, sent a strong signal the two countries are standing together.

"Both sides are more determined to develop bilateral ties, and are more confident in promoting cooperation in various fields," Wang said while hosting his counterpart for a two-day meeting focused on Afghanistan.

"China is willing to work with Russia to take China-Russian ties to a higher level in a new era under the guidance of the consensus reached by the heads of state."

In a recent column published on Euronews, a top Chinese official struck a more conciliatory tone, calling for the restoration of peace "at an early date."

"China and Europe have been victims of wars and beneficiaries of peace and stability. The current situation in Ukraine is something China does not want to see," wrote Wang Hongjian, Chargé d'Affaires at the Chinese mission to the EU.

EU leaders will try to decipher the mixed messages and demand China stay clear from interfering in the conflict and lending Moscow a helping hand, a scenario that would mark a turning point in the war's evolution.

Beijing has been a vocal defender of international principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interreference in domestic affairs, all of which Russia is currently violating.

"China has been playing a balancing act, keeping a position that suits its own interests," said a EU official speaking on condition of anonymity, calling the Ukraine issue "the million dollar question".

The EU's priority will be to ensure Beijing's ambiguity does not turn into "overt support" for Russia that enables a circumvention of Western sanctions or props up the damaged economy.

Brussels believes that China, due to its profitable trade relations with the EU and the US, stands to lose out from a potential intervention in Moscow's favour, whose economic ties are negligible in comparison.

"China has a particular responsibility as a permanent member of the the UN Security Council," the official noted. "It has to realise the war does not concern only Europe but is a danger to the entire rules-based world order and has an impact on the global economy."

The EU front will be represented by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and High Representative Josep Borrell.

In the morning, they will hold talks with China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang and later exchange views with China’s President Xi Jinping in the early afternoon.

The encounter will be entirely virtual and will extend over five hours on Friday.

A increasingly fraught relation

The 23rd EU-China summit had been scheduled before Vladimir Putin ordered the brutal invasion and forever changed the continent's geopolitics. The meeting was originally organised to address the great range of tensions that have plagued the relations between the two sides in recent years.

Chief among them, accusations of economic coercion against Lithuania. The Baltic state claims China is punishing the country for allowing Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing sees as a breakaway province, to open a de-facto embassy in Vilnius.

The European Commission has collected evidence that suggests China is refusing to clear Lithuanian goods through its customs system, rejecting import applications and pressuring EU companies to remove Lithuania-made component from their supply chains.

China has denied such systematic policy exists, but the justification has not been enough for the executive, which earlier this year decided to open a legal case before the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The Lithuania row only served to worsen the state of bilateral relations, already badly hit since March 2021.

In that fateful month, the EU, in coordination with international allies, imposed a limited set of sanctions on four Chinese officials and one entity believed to be involved in the human rights violations against the Uyghur Muslin minority.

The West has repeatedly said that serious abuses, such as mass arbitrary detention, torture and forced political indoctrination, are taking place in concentration camps located in the Xingjian autonomous region.

China lashed out against the allies, calling the charges "nothing but lies and disinformation." In a tit-for-tat reaction, Beijing sanctioned ten European individuals and four entities, including five Members of the European Parliament.

The retaliation against democratically-elected representatives shocked Europeans and prompted a sudden rethink of EU-China relations. A parliamentary resolution called the move "an attack against the European Union and its Parliament as a whole."

In that same text, MEPs voted to freeze a controversial investment deal that had been agreed in principle in December 2020 and was meant to increase access for EU investors and companies doing business in China, a notoriously hermetic market.

The agreement, which President von der Leyen once described as an "important landmark," remains wedged in an impasse as Beijing refuses to lift the sanctions against the lawmakers.

Trade barriers, Taiwan, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and human rights are all expected to be discussed during Friday's summit. Climate change, digital regulation and the post-coronavirus economic recovery, less controversial issues where compromise is easier to find, will also feature on the agenda.

EU officials expect a "frank" discussion to address the multiple points where the two sides diverge in an "honest, open and constructive" manner.

Nevertheless, the dark cloud of the Ukraine war is set to cast a long shadow over the entire meeting, possibly tainting all the other topics of conversation.

"I don't see – without overcoming this point – how you can move or can you progress on other issues," Ricardo Borges de Castro, associate director at the European Policy Centre, told Euronews.

"This conflict, and the fact that we are on different sides, might contaminate to other problems that the EU and China relationship have had over the past two, three years. And, actually, my assessment is that we are on a negative downward trend in relationships between the EU and China."

Notably, the summit will not produce a joint statement, which is the common outcome of high-level summits of this kind. This absence reflects the meeting is neither "routine" nor "business as usual," officials said.

"The big lesson from the current war is that having business and dependencies on countries that don't share your values can have a huge cost. The lesson that many Europeans might [draw] is that we might need to rethink our relationships with China and even maybe question this idea of of China being a partner, a competitor and a rival," Borges de Castro said.

"This is not only a watershed moment for Europe, but is a watershed moment for EU-China relations."