31st May 2023

China under EU pressure to join 'right side of history'

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Beijing will face EU pressure to abandon its support for Russia when Chinese leaders hold a virtual summit with top EU officials on Friday (1 April).

That was the message sent out by EU and Nato leaders meeting in Brussels last week.

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"China has a choice," Latvian prime minister said at last Krišjānis Kariņš said in Brussels last Thursday.

"It is a rather simple choice: put in your lot with Russia that is waging war against Ukraine, bombing women, children and hospitals, [or] to find a way to work with Europe, with the US, and with Western democracies," he added.

China was a geopolitical giant and the EU needed to make sure "they are on the right side of history", Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin said.

"If China helps Russia, then the [EU anti-war] sanctions will not work as we want," Marin added.

"Our message to China is that they should join the rest of the world and clearly condemn the brutal war against Ukraine and not support Russia," Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg also said.

EU-China relations had already soured before Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February.

A planned China-EU investment treaty had fallen by the wayside after the EU imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for human rights abuses.

China also stood accused of bullying Lithuania with unofficial trade sanctions because of Vilnius' ever-closer ties to Taiwan.

And China's reaction to Russia's war on Ukraine made matters worse after Beijing began spreading Russian propaganda and indicated that it might lend Moscow military and financial support in its confrontation with Western powers.

"We need calm and rationality to defuse a crisis rather than ignite the fire and add more fuel to the fire," Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said last Thursday after Nato's Stoltenberg had complained that Beijing had "provided Russia with political support by spreading lies".

"We need dialogue and communications to resume peace instead of using pressure and coercion," Wang added, in remarks that made out as though it was Nato, not Russia, that was responsible for the new geopolitical crisis.

Siding with Russia was an opportunity for China to "put the West in a difficult situation and a disadvantage", one EU diplomat said.

But, as time went by, Russia's invasion was beginning to look more and more like a military as well as a moral and diplomatic failure, in developments that ought to make Beijing think twice, Colin Kahl, a senior Pentagon official, told Reuters last week.

"What [Russian president Vladimir] Putin has done in Ukraine makes Russia much more of a strategic burden for Beijing than it was six weeks ago or six months ago," Kahlo said.

Beijing had a transactional rather than a values-oriented approach to foreign policy for some EU observers.

"They see the world differently [to Europe]. We have our own reality and they have their own reality. They are very businesslike: 'You pay and you do, and the advantage must be for us [China]'," a second EU diplomat said.

But if that was the case, then the Western unity that was galvanised by Russia's invasion should also be a factor in Beijing's calculations, EU diplomats believe.

"They must see that when it comes to protecting values, we [the West] can inflict some real damage," one of the EU diplomats said.

"It must be terrifying for them to see how united we [Western allies] are," the second EU diplomat said. "We are a big player now thanks to Mr Putin".

Western allies would find it much harder to stop Putin's war machine in Ukraine without Beijing's support.

"We need them", the EU diplomat said.

But at the same time, the Chinese "were not expecting this [Western unity] from us, so now they must be scared," the diplomat added.


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