European officials are questioning Beijing’s ability to be an honest broker

By Bojan Pancevski and Kim Mackrael

May 26, 2023

The Wall Street Journal


China has courted European nations in an effort to weaken the U.S.-led pushback against Beijing’s widening global clout. After previously taking a softer approach, Europe in recent years has moved closer to U.S. positions on economic security and trade, and become increasingly wary of China.

The Biden administration, while foreseeing a role for China in an eventual negotiated settlement, has been skeptical of Beijing’s intentions as a peacemaker due to its close relationship with Moscow. The White House in March tried to head off an expected call from Beijing for a cease-fire, with a spokesman saying such a move would serve as “effectively the ratification of Russian conquest.”

Europe is also broadly aligned with Washington in the view that no peace can be achieved in Ukraine without the withdrawal of Russian troops, and its governments are concerned by Xi’s ties with Putin, Western officials said.

European diplomats said they sought to convey three key messages during their meetings with Li: that China must continue to pressure Russia against using nuclear weapons, that it not supply military aid to Russia, and that it condemn Moscow’s aggression. They also asked Li for Chinese backing of the international efforts to secure the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest such facility in Europe, which is occupied by Russia.

Li, Beijing’s special representative on Eurasian affairs and a former Chinese ambassador to Russia, has visited Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany and Belgium, the seat of European Union institutions and NATO. Diplomats from several of those countries said they coordinated closely to make sure Li got the same message from European allies.

The French official who met with Li this week told the Chinese diplomat that France was convinced China could play a constructive role in pursuing a just and lasting peace in Ukraine, France’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The official emphasized the need to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and said France and the EU were determined to support Ukraine over the long term.

Poland’s Foreign Ministry said following Li’s visit to Warsaw that the deputy minister who met the Chinese diplomat told him, “Poland is concerned about Beijing’s declarations about striving to strengthen bilateral relations with Russia, the aggressor state.”

The pushback from Europe comes as the U.S. and China see a possible window for repairing ties damaged by the discovery and shooting down of a suspected Chinese spy balloon earlier this year. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo met with her Chinese counterpart, Wang Wentao, in Washington on Thursday, the first such meeting to take place in Washington under the Biden administration.

The Department of Commerce said the two had candid and substantive discussions about the U.S.-China commercial relationship, and that Raimondo raised concerns about Beijing’s recent actions against U.S. companies that operate in China. China’s Commerce Ministry said Wang expressed concern about the U.S.’s economic and trade policy toward China.

EU officials have said the war in Ukraine is complicating their relationship with China, which hasn’t condemned Moscow’s invasion.

“Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine is making the context for the EU-China relationship more complex,” Valdis Dombrovskis, the EU’s trade chief, said Thursday. He conveyed that message to Wang, China’s commerce minister, during a meeting last month, he said.

The EU is preparing an economic security strategy, due next month, that appears set to bring the bloc closer to the U.S. in its approach to China.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said earlier this year that Europe needs to be more assertive in defending its security and economic interests amid rising risks from China and raised the possibility of EU-wide controls on outbound investment.

The EU is aiming to take the lessons learned from its heavy dependency on Russian natural gas, which Moscow has weaponized against the bloc during the war in Ukraine, to reconsider its reliance on other strategic sectors, from semiconductors to critical raw materials, European officials have said.

EU and U.S. officials are set to discuss trade relations with China during a high-level meeting of the Trade and Technology Council in northern Sweden next week.

The EU’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, who will attend the meeting in Sweden, said Thursday that Europe is now following some of its Western allies in taking a more cautious approach toward China. She said the bloc wants to protect trade with China that it doesn’t see as risky and to be more precise in identifying the areas that pose concerns for Europe’s economic security.

“When it comes to technology, there are very clear risks stemming from China,” Vestager said. She cited China’s integration of civil and military functions, risks related to human rights, and what she referred to as a misuse of technology as some of the bloc’s concerns.

Europe’s newfound assertiveness on Beijing is born in part from a fear that the bloc could be left behind as the U.S. and China redraw geopolitical relations.

“If we do not assess the risks from a European perspective, then the dividing lines will be drawn either in Beijing or Washington,” Vestager said.