Ukraine war hijacks China-European Union summit

April 07, 2022 11:57
Photo: Xinhua

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine hijacked the 23rd China-European Union summit last Friday, exposing deep divisions that marked a further deterioration in relations.

The first summit since September 2020, it was a video conference event with two parts. In the first, Premier Li Keqiang talked for two hours with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell. They discussed trade disputes, climate change and human rights.

In the second, the same three talked for one hour with President Xi Jinping about Ukraine.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not only a defining moment for our continent, but also for our relationship with the rest of the world,” said von der Leyen. “As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China has a special responsibility. No European citizen would understand any support to Russia’s ability to wage war.

“By invading, Russia purposefully undermined Europe’s security architecture, including the Helsinki Final Act, the Charter of Paris and the Budapest Memorandum, to which Russia is party,” she said.

In response, Xi said that the “fundamental cause of the Ukraine crisis lay in the long-standing regional conflict in Europe.” That is the Russian position. He strongly criticised sanctions against Russia imposed by the West, saying that they would lead to serious crises in global finance, trade, energy, technology, supply chains and other sectors.

Every day Europeans watch on their televisions the ruins of residential buildings in Kharkiv, Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities and their residents walking, traumatised and starving, among rubbish and rubble, dead bodies unburied and the carbonised remains of cars, tanks and armoured cars. This week they also see the corpses of unarmed civilians in Bucha and other cities occupied by the Russians. The Ukrainian government is calling these killings “a war crime”.

But those who watch Chinese state television see no such images. They do not hear the words “war” or “invasion”, only “special military operation”, the term used by Putin and the Russian media. For China, the cause of the war is the West, and the United States in particular.

“Biden is trapped in a Cold War view of the world,” said the China Daily in an editorial. “He has rejected out of hand any constructive dialogue with Russia.”

Xi’s strong support for Putin is not shared by everyone in China, including those within the policy elite. They argue that China’s trade with the EU is worth 1.9 billion euros a day, six times the 330 million euros a day with Russia. So Beijing should put interests with Brussels ahead of those with Moscow.

But, in China as in Russia, those who oppose the official line express such a view at their peril.

Xi’s strong viewpoint last Friday meant no improvement in relations that have deteriorated since the last summit.

That summit was dominated by final negotiations before the signing of EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, agreed in principle on December 30, 2020 after seven years of negotiations.

But the European Parliament refused to ratify it since Beijing sanctioned 10 EU officials, including five members of the Parliament, in retaliation for sanctions on four Chinese linked to what the EU called the “Uyghur genocide” in Xinjiang.

One of the five was Reinhard Butikofer, a German and member of the Green Party. “A pact between Russia and China signed in February formed an axis that is seeking to bring down the Western liberal world order. They are revisionist powers. We have passed the point of no return.”

His party is one of three in a new German government that took office in December 2021. “Our government is far more sceptical of China than its predecessors,” he said. For the previous 20 years, Germany was China’s strongest supporter within the EU. Among EU countries, it is China’s largest investor and trade partner.

Bilateral relations further deteriorated in December when Beijing banned imports from Lithuania after it allowed Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius under the name “Taiwan”. The ban also extended to goods from other EU countries that contained parts and components made in Lithuania. This enraged companies in other countries, including Germany, who said it breached the policy of a single market.

In January, Brussels launched a complaint against China at the World Trade Organisation.

Now the western world is watching intensely the behaviour of Chinese companies toward Russia. According to U.S. intelligence, Moscow has asked Beijing to provide surface-to-air missiles, drones, armoured and logistics vehicles and intelligence-related equipment.

On Saturday, Wang Lutong, director-general of European affairs at the Foreign Ministry, said that China was contributing to the global economy by conducting normal trade with Russia. “We oppose sanctions, and the effects of these sanctions also risk spilling to the rest of the world, leading to currency wars, trade and financial wars, and also risk jeopardising the supply chain and industrial chain and globalisation and even the economic order,” he said.

Does Beijing consider military equipment and drones “normal trade”?

What will happen when Ukrainian troops over-run a Russian army base and discover drones, vehicles and equipment with Chinese characters?

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.