China tries to square the circle

February 22, 2023 10:36
Photo: Reuters

State Councilor Wang Yi returned to China this week after seven days of diplomacy that tested even his deep skill and experience – how to maintain good relations with both the European Union (EU) and EU’s arch enemy, Russia.

Wang visited three EU countries – France, Italy and Hungary – and addressed the annual Munich Security Conference before going to Moscow, where he met Russian leaders. He also met German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Josep Borrell, the top diplomat of the European Union.

“France should not decouple from China, should increase co-operation in technology and provide a fair environment for Chinese companies,” Wang told French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna last week.

China is the third largest export destination for EU goods and its biggest source of imports. According to Chinese figures, bilateral trade in the first 11 months of last year was US$780 billion, up 4.4 per cent over the same 2021 period, and cumulative bilateral investment was US$270 billion.

“China and France have a strong tradition of pursuing independent foreign policy, supporting multi-polarisation and opposing bloc confrontation,” said Xinhua news agency in a commentary on the visit.

But, over the past year, EU-China bilateral relations have deteriorated, the EU said in a report in 2022. “This notably relates to a growing number of irritants, such as China’s counter-measures to EU sanctions on human rights, economic coercion and trade measures against the single market, and China’s positioning on the war in Ukraine.

“The balance of challenges and opportunities presented by China has shifted over time. At the same time, the EU has remained committed to engagement and cooperation given China’s crucial role in addressing global and regional challenges,” it said.

Scholz, who visited Beijing last December, strongly opposes decoupling between the EU and China. French President Emmanuel Macron is due to visit Beijing later in the spring.

Wang’s most difficult challenge in Europe was to explain China’s position on the war in Ukraine. For the EU, the war has become an existential threat. Never since 1945 have the countries of Europe united in such a way to provide military and financial help to a single nation.
They see the soldiers of Ukraine fighting for Europe and fear that, if Vladimir Putin conquered Ukraine, his next targets could be Moldova and the three Baltic states. Before 1991, they belonged to the Soviet Union.

In his speech in Munich, Wang announced a peace proposal to end the war. China will soon publish a position paper on how to find a political solution based on principles such as territorial integrity and the sovereignty of all countries, he said.

Western leaders responded with scepticism. “China has taken a position on the war,” said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, in Munich. “It is not neutral. We have taken a position also. It is up to Ukraine to decide when to negotiate.”

Since 2013, Xi and Putin have met 39 times and attended high-profile events in each other’s countries. Since the war began on February 24 last year, Xi has not spoken to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

From Munich, Wang flew to Moscow where he met Russian leaders, a few days before the first anniversary of the invasion, to prepare for a state visit by President Xi Jinping in the spring.

Even worse from the EU point of view, last week Xi received in Beijing Ebrahim Raisi, President of Iran, Russia’s principal military ally in the invasion. Iranian drones have killed hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians and destroyed Ukrainian buildings. Raisi is, after Putin, one of the world leaders most hated in Europe.

In an editorial on February 14 on the visit, China Daily said: “the unilateral sanctions that the West imposes on the Islamic Republic without the authorisation of the United Nations are devoid of legitimacy and they should not and will not hinder the economic and trade co-operation between China and Iran, which brings tangible benefits and contributes to the development of the two countries.”

A European diplomat in Hong Kong said China gained no benefit from being so close to Putin. “Its most important trade and investment partners are the EU, the U.S. and Japan. That is where its economic interests lie.

“China can have non-military trade and other relations with Russia without this intimacy with Putin. Europeans regard him as a second Adolf Hitler, a Satan on earth who is killing thousands of people, Ukrainian and Russian, for no good reason,” he said.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.