Europe Engages China In A Diplomatic Dance – OpEd


By Andrew Hammond

Three senior European leaders have traveled thousands of miles to Beijing in recent days to see Chinese President Xi Jinping, yet the center of their discussions lie much closer to home in Ukraine.

The backdrop to Xi’s meetings with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and French President Emmanuel Macron is the continuing conflict. Russia’s invasion has left Europe, and the wider West, including the US and Canada, more united than in years.

So, as China’s relations with the US remain at rock bottom, Beijing is keen to avoid a long-lasting public spat with the EU 27, too, which are collectively one of the country’s biggest trading partners. Indeed, one driver of Xi’s 12-point “peace plan” released last month is softening European and broader international opinion about China’s stance on the conflict, rather than being a realistic blueprint for quickly resolving the situation.

China’s deteriorating relationship with the US has given Europe more leverage. Xi particularly wants to revive discussions over the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, an accord inked in 2021, but which has yet to be ratified by the European Parliament.

This potential “window of opportunity” will be seized on by Macron, in particular, given his desire for Europe to bolster what he calls its “strategic autonomy” with regards to other global powers. And it is no coincidence that Macron will be accompanied on his trip by Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, plus business leaders from about 50 firms, including Veolia, EDF and Airbus.

What Macron and von der Leyen stressed to Xi is that Europe wants to maintain engagement with China, but that this will be much harder if he continues to support Russia in Ukraine, and potentially intensifies this later. That is why von der Leyen previously said the bloc is looking to “de-risk” diplomatically and economically, without “decoupling” completely from Beijing.

So, just as Xi engages in a charm offensive with Europe, Sanchez, von der Leyen and Macron have had their own agenda with China, including on Ukraine — that is, seeking to chip away at Beijing’s support for Moscow.

Macron has already privately flagged to Xi, who was hosted at the Kremlin last month, that Europe regards it as unacceptable for China to provide any arms to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement that he will locate nuclear weapons in Belarus could provide an opportunity for the French president to push China to distance itself from Russia on this point, Beijing having previously criticized nuclear proliferation.

However, it is unlikely Europe will succeed in significantly disrupting the Russia-China relationship in the near term. That is unless Putin oversteps the mark, such as the use of nuclear weapons.

Xi is unlikely to break decisively with Putin, assuming the latter remains in office and avoids badly miscalculating further, not only because of their political warmth now over several years, but also their growing bilateral economic ties. The latter is the key driver behind the Chinese leader’s plans to “continue prioritising its strategic partnership” with Moscow, especially given the current frayed ties with the US.   

In 2021, Xi asserted that bilateral relations are at “the highest level, most profound and strategically most significant relationship between major countries in the world.”

However, outside of the political and security domain, China and Russia also enjoy an extensive economic dialogue. This has deepened, significantly, since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea almost a decade ago. 

For instance, there are bilateral plans for numerous cooperation projects with China, including a new method of interbank transfers, and a joint credit agency that seeks to create a shared financial and economic infrastructure that will allow them to function independently of Western-dominated financial institutions. 

The boost to the bilateral economic cooperation agenda has helped enable work toward stronger, common positions on key regional and global issues, too. Outside of Ukraine, this includes North Korea, with which both Russia and China have land borders and have been long-standing allies. 

Taken together, with China and Russia’s relations with the US looking increasingly unpredictable, Putin and Xi may place greater emphasis on their partnership, despite any disagreements over Ukraine. While this is underpinned by a growing economic and political dialogue, their personal closeness also appears to be a factor, one that may strengthen further if both remain in office.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *