Europe’s ties with China hit a essential juncture after Xi-Putin assembly

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron are meeting this week.

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European officials are traveling to China hoping to persuade Beijing to denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and cool its recent kinship with the Kremlin.

Walking a tightrope, the 27-strong bloc seeks to forge economic ties with China, but also reaffirms close political and cultural ties with the United States. This has become particularly difficult as the US government ramped up its anti-Beijing rhetoric, and even more so after Russia’s invasion of its neighbor.

“It is clear that our relations have become more distant and difficult in recent years,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, in a speech on Thursday ahead of her trip to Beijing this week.

“We have been observing a very conscious hardening of China’s overall strategic stance for some time. And this has now been accompanied by a proliferation of increasingly assertive measures,” she added.

Von der Leyen is traveling to Beijing this week with French President Emmanuel Macron. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez met with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week. Europe’s top foreign policy diplomat, Josep Borrell, is traveling to China next week.

“Lots of Europeans [are] go to China,” Borrell said on Tuesday, adding that they have a clear message.

“His position on Russia’s atrocities and war crimes will determine the quality of our relationship with Beijing. In the meantime, the European Union stands united and our transatlantic community remains united too,” he said.

China has failed to condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine. During a visit to Moscow in March, China’s head of state Xi Jinping described his Russian counterpart as a dear friend.

Relations between the US and the European Union have never been stronger.

Antony Blink

US Secretary of State

Beijing proposed a 12-point peace plan for the Ukraine war in February. The plan does not say whether Russia will have to leave Ukrainian territory for a deal to be struck. Ukraine has made it clear it will not agree to any peace deal that does not include regaining full control of its territory, including Crimea, which the Kremlin annexed in 2014.

“Europe has come quite close to the position of the United States,” Niclas Poitiers, a research associate at Bruegel, told CNBC’s Squawk Box Europe on Monday, adding that Brussels wants to reduce dependence on China. The EU has been heavily dependent on Russia for energy supplies and now wants to avoid similar mistakes with other parts of the world.

“Overall there is a consensus that we need to do something about our over-reliance on China and make sure they don’t blackmail small member states,” Poitiers said.

A recent example of increasing US-EU convergence is the Netherlands’ decision to impose export restrictions to China after the states tried to limit Beijing’s access to cutting-edge microchip manufacturing.

In addition, the United States also became Europe’s main supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG) last year as the bloc attempted to phase out Russian hydrocarbons.

There is also increased, albeit natural, cooperation between the EU nations and the US on security issues, as most of them are also members of NATO.

“The relationship between the US and the European Union has never been stronger or more important to advancing our common interests,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Brussels on Tuesday.

Blinken is meeting with his NATO counterparts this week, where they will discuss further support for Ukraine and increasing financial contributions to the military alliance.

But rapprochement with the US is not an easy decision for European leaders. In 2022, China was the largest source of EU imports and the third largest buyer of EU goods, underscoring Beijing’s economic importance to Europe. This is particularly relevant when EU economic growth is threatened by the ongoing war in Ukraine.

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