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Quality of EU-China relations to be determined by Beijing's support for Russia, Borrell says

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at the European Council building in Brussels, April 4, 2023.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at the European Council building in Brussels, April 4, 2023. Copyright Olivier Matthys, Pool Photo via AP
Copyright Olivier Matthys, Pool Photo via AP
By Alice Tidey
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French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen are travelling to China this week.

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China's support to Russia over its war in Ukraine "will determine the quality" of its relations with the European Union, Josep Borrell said on Tuesday ahead of a visit to Beijing by Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen.

"We have been clear with China that its position on Russia's atrocities and war crimes will determine the quality of our relations with Beijing," the EU's top diplomat said.

"There is a clear expectation from a permanent member of the Security Council to stand up in defence of (the) international rules-based order and China has a moral duty to contribute to a fair peace. They cannot be siding with the aggressor. They cannot be militarily supporting the aggression. This is our message to China from today's meeting and from all the European Union visits going to Beijing," he added.

A flurry of European diplomatic overtures has taken place since China started easing its COVID-19-related travel restrictions late last year. 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was the first to make the trip in November, followed by European Council President Charles Michel a month later. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez visited Beijing last week with French President Emmanuel Macron starting a three-day state visit to China on Wednesday, where he will be joined by the European Commission President. Borrell himself will travel to the country next week.

'A move towards peace requires China'

The EU's official stance on China is that the country is simultaneously a partner for cooperation and negotiation, an economic competitor and a systemic rival.

Von der Leyen acknowledged last week that relations between the EU and China have become "more distant and more difficult" in recent years, branding Beijing "more repressive at home and more assertive abroad" in a bid to "make China less dependent on the world and the world more dependent on China."

She nonetheless said the 27-country bloc cannot "decouple" from China, and should instead "de-risk" by addressing economic and strategic imbalances. This would be achieved by reducing dependencies on certain technologies and by toughening up tools to ensure fair competition practices and continued EU ownership of key industries and infrastructure.

Ahead of the trip, Paris was keen to emphasise that Ukraine will feature high on the agenda, in a bid perhaps, to dispel any criticism over the hefty contracts the important delegation of business leaders accompanying Macron is expected to sign with Chinese counterparts.

Beijing is widely seen as possibly the only country in the world that could have a game-changing effect on the conflict due to its close ties with Russia, demonstrated with great fanfare two weeks ago when Xi Jinping visited Moscow.

"China is the only country in the world able to have an immediate and radical impact on the evolution of the conflict, in one direction or the other. And the ambition of the President of the Republic is to be able to convey, during his discussions with President Xi Jinping, the consequences of one choice or the other," an Elysée source said.

"And so, the choice to be able to move towards peace requires China to take clearer positions on this objective, i.e. peace, and on the path that can lead to it, also to support the Ukrainian civilian population in various aspects we are trying to work on," it added.

Von der Leyen 's participation in Macron's visit and in a trilateral meeting with Xi on Thursday is "fully in line with this effort from the beginning to show the Chinese authorities that we are coming, not as disunited states, but as bearers of a European position," the source added.

'US-EU relations have never been stronger'

Western allies including the EU have warned China that any delivery of lethal military assistance to Russia would constitute a red line and result in consequences. 

Beijing, for its part, describes itself as a neutral peace-broker and has released a 12-point plan to end the conflict. The plan has been welcomed by Moscow but heavily criticised by the West for failing to name the conflict a "war" or "invasion" with Russia as the aggressor.

Borrell, meanwhile, described as ironic Russian President Vladimir Putin's threat to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus days after issuing a joint statement with Xi calling on nuclear-weapon states not to deploy nuclear weapons abroad.

"His (Putin's) newest nuclear gamble with a nuclear weapons move to Belarus constitutes a new escalation and poses a direct threat to European security. And this comes, ironically, after Chinese President Xi visited Moscow and mentioned the need for peace, and they agreed on the need to not deploy nuclear arms abroad," he said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking alongside Borrell in Brussels, added that "US-European Union relations have never been stronger or more important for advancing our shared interests."

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"The United States and the EU continue to work in lockstep together with a broad coalition of partners around the world to ensure that Ukraine can defend itself, its people, its territory, the right to choose its own path.

"We also spoke about our continued partnership on economic security. We have serious concerns about the challenges posed by economic coercion, by the weaponisation of economic dependencies and non-market policies and practices, including by the People's Republic of China," he added.

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