Not business as usual . . .
China and the European Union (EU) held a long-awaited summit on April 1 via video link. Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping met with the European Commission President, Ursula von Leyen, and President of the European Council, Charles Michel. The 23rd annual summit was a tense affair, with EU representatives straying from trade-only discussions and instead pushing their Chinese counterparts on Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine and calling on China to support efforts to end the bloodshed. The EU also vented other long-simmering grievances, including China’s sanctions against EU lawmakers and Lithuania, and the human rights situations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
A Ukraine-sized wedge in the relationship . . .
The EU’s traditional trade- and economy-based relationship with China has been significantly strained by the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Von der Leyen cautioned Chinese representatives against breaking international sanctions on Russia. Beijing has attempted to play both sides of the conflict, issuing statements in support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and concerns over civilian casualties, while also expressing some support for Russia. Recently, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi met with his Russian counterpart and reaffirmed Beijing’s strong ties with Moscow. Within China, the government has been pushing a documentary with a pro-Russia tilt. The film defends Russia’s national security concerns as valid and portrays both Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin favourably as modernizing and patriotic leaders.
Motivations deeper than surface-level ideological support for Moscow . . .
China’s discourse on the Ukraine-Russia conflict may be more reflective of domestic concerns than uncritical support for Moscow. Chinese media coverage of Ukraine has taken a back seat to national issues, such as the recent plane crash and September Party Congress, and is cast in anti-Western, anti-U.S. rhetoric to appeal to grassroots nationalism. In diplomatic channels, China has also blamed the U.S. and its Western partners for the conflict, arguing that in the face of NATO expansion, Russia had no recourse other than a military solution. Rather than reflecting China’s policy on Ukraine and Russia, the pro-Putin documentary may be more indicative of Xi Jinping’s own insecurities related to his approach to tense relationships with Western partners, and his grasp on power domestically.
- The Diplomat: China-EU Summit highlights diverging paths
- The New York Times: Bristling against the West, China rallies domestic sympathy for Russia
- Reuters: China tells EU it will pursue Ukraine peace in its own way