By Grzegorz Stec
Not really. The upcoming 23rd EU-China summit, which will bring together European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (accompanied by High Representative Josep Borrell) with China’s Premier Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping in two separate meetings tomorrow, is unlikely to produce a joint statement or other substantive results.
There are two main reasons.
Beijing shies away from engaging on Ukraine
First, according to the summit agenda released by Brussels, the war in Ukraine will be the focus, but Beijing does not seem inclined to constructively engage the EU on the issue. Over the past few weeks, European diplomats have been unsuccessfully lobbying China to play a mediator’s role between Moscow and Kiev, while Beijing has been pushing back against putting the situation in Ukraine on the summit’s agenda. The phrasing of the EU’s agenda — “the engagement of the international community to support Ukraine” and “the dramatic humanitarian crisis created by Russia's aggression”, runs counter to China’s official line and suggests that finding common ground may be hard to come by.
The build up to the summit indicates the same.
Beijing surely followed last week’s NATO, G7 and European Council summits closely that showcased a united transatlantic and wider Western position regarding China’s role in the conflict. NATO leaders explicitly called out China, urging it “to abstain from supporting Russia’s war effort in any way, and to refrain from any action that helps Russia circumvent sanctions” as well as “to cease amplifying the Kremlin’s false narratives […] and to promote a peaceful resolution to the conflict.” On top of that came the G7 summit outcome which, although less explicitly targeted at Beijing, nevertheless included plans to establish a joint sanctions enforcement mechanism and for the participation of US President Joe Biden in the European Council.
Conversely just two days before the EU-China summit, on the sidelines of a two-day Afghanistan-focused summit in Anhui province Ministers of Foreign Affairs of China and Russia condemned the sanctions targeting Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi also indicated that “China-Russia relations have withstood the new test of the changing international situation, [...] and demonstrated a tenacious development momentum”. On the same day during an MFA briefing, spokesperson Wang Wenbin stated that “There is no limit to China-Russia cooperation, no limit to our efforts to achieve peace, safeguard security and oppose hegemony”.
Positions of both the EU and China are increasingly clear and the room for joint action on the Russian invasion continues to shrink.
Bilateral obstacles remain
The second reason is that, beyond the geopolitical context, there are still several unresolved issues that prevent the progress of EU-China bilateral relations. The economic coercion that China is applying towards Lithuania remains an unresolved problem, with consultations ongoing under WTO mechanisms. Similarly, the sanctions that the EU is applying over China’s systemic human right violations in Xinjiang have recently been renewed for another year, and China shows no interest in lifting the countersanctions it has applied to European parliamentarians, researchers and selected institutions unless the EU does so first. Consequently, the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment remains on ice from which it is highly unlikely to make a comeback in the foreseeable future.
Aside from Beijing’s requests for German businesses to lobby on its behalf for maintaining a cooperation-focused tone in EU-China relations, there has been no indication that diplomatic moves are being taken to resolve these issues in the run-up to the summit. While addressing these points of divergence remains crucial for the prospects of EU-China relations, the Russian invasion has shifted other such issues lower down the priority list. Given the current crisis, any desire that the EU or China might have had for rapprochement now appears beyond reach.
So, what to expect?
Against this backdrop, it is most likely that the summit’s results will be similar to the outcomes of the previous one in June 2020. Then the summit was more of an opportunity for EU leaders to directly express their position to the Chinese leadership, rather than struggling to come up with a constructive agenda upon which both sides can agree.
Still, this does not diminish the summit’s value. The EU leaders will likely use it to try to influence Chinese leaders’ strategic calculus regarding its tacit support for Russia by outlining the potential economic costs a practical support for Moscow would entail and try to encourage Beijing to play a more constructive role in preventing the ongoing killing of civilians in Ukraine. Despite the slim chances of success due to an array of divergences of interests between the EU and China, and along with what is at stake in humanitarian and geopolitical terms, the importance of such direct communication cannot be overstated. Still, the EU will need to remain clear-eyed and ensure that the lessons learned from the summit and Beijing’s overall posture during the ongoing Russian invasion inform its China policy going forward.
We will discuss the final outcomes of the summit and its implications for the future of EU-China relations in a dedicated analysis next week.