Once trade-linked, China-EU honeymoon soured by war in Ukraine | International Trade News

Taipei, Taiwan- China and Europe may not be in a cold war, but bilateral relations are increasingly cold.

China’s failure to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, seen as an existential threat to European security, is the latest and most serious in a series of challenges Beijing has launched to the order based on rules on which the European Union claims to operate.

Reflecting a bilateral relationship centered on the economy, Europe has often come to grips with its disagreements with its main trading partner, China.

However, China’s support for Russia – rooted in Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin – has changed European calculations.

“The sense of urgency to protect Europe from authoritarian threats was not as strong as it is today. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a game-changer,” Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, an assistant professor at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan and a former political adviser to the European Parliament, told Al Jazeera.

Brussels initially hoped that Beijing would use its influence with Moscow to negotiate peace.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed hope that Beijing could use its close ties with Moscow to broker peace in Ukraine [File: Yves Herman/Reuters]

“There is no alternative,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told Spanish newspaper El Mundo in March. “It must be China.”

Instead, China abstained in a UN vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and denounced a “cold war mentality based on confrontation between the blocs”, a blow to NATO. During a virtual summit with EU leaders on April 1, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian blamed the United States for the conflict. Washington, Zhao said, is “the culprit and main instigator of the Ukraine crisis.”

Such claims do not resonate in Europe, where the United States plays a crucial security role.

“Beijing is so blinded by wanting Europe to be ‘strategic autonomous’ from the United States that it prevents it from understanding the security infrastructure in Europe,” Sari Arho Havrén, Europe-China policy analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin, Al Jazeera told Al Jazeera.

“Wolf warrior diplomacy hasn’t won any friends in Europe for China,” Sarah Kirchberger, head of Asia-Pacific strategy and security at the China Policy Institute, told Al Jazeera. security from the University of Kiel, referring to the pugnacious approach to foreign affairs pursued under Xi.

Kirchberger noted that European views on China hardened in the early days of the pandemic when Beijing hoarded medical supplies even as it denied the severity of the outbreak in Wuhan, sent Europe kits test kits and faulty face masks made in China and refused to cooperate with an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.

As Beijing doubles down on its “no limits” partnership with Moscow, “there is a wake-up call in Europe that some states are not goodwill actors and will not follow the rules,” Kirchberger said. “We need to reduce our vulnerability and dependence on China.”

“A dialogue of the deaf”

Although Europe’s expectations were low for the recent EU-China summit, Beijing’s performance still managed to disappoint. China has refused to commit to suspending military or economic support from Russia, a key European goal of the summit. Josep Borrell described the talks as “a dialogue of the deaf”.

“At the EU-China summit, China was reluctant to even address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and wanted to talk about ‘positive’ things – while there is a war on the ground Europe,” said MERICS member Arho Havrén.

“It is again a sign of not understanding the gravity of the situation in Europe and of wanting to stay out, despite being a permanent member of the UN Security Council.”

Beijing’s goals for the summit were nebulous. Xi has been preoccupied with domestic affairs as he pushes for an unprecedented third term in the National Congress of the Communist Party of China in the second half of the year.

Although the summit did not produce any joint statement, Chinese state media still cast it in a positive light.

“In a turbulent world facing the raging COVID-19 pandemic and a difficult global economic recovery, the fact that Chinese and European leaders have had in-depth and frank discussions on the main issues concerning world peace and development itself injects positive energy into the world,” Deng Li, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, was quoted by Xinhua News.

This rosy vision aside, Beijing seems at least to recognize that its relations with Europe are increasingly troubled. Last week, he sent a delegation of diplomats to Central and Eastern Europe led by Huo Yuzhen, China’s special representative for China-Central and Eastern Europe cooperation.

“Beijing is now attempting the exact same charm offensive in Eastern Europe as it did during the EU-China summit. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now – except maybe in Hungary and Serbia,” said Arho Havrén, the most pro-Beijing countries in the region.

The flag of Lithuania.
Lithuania’s deepening ties with Taiwan have strained relations with Beijing [File: Peter Kollanyi/Bloomberg]

China’s diplomatic presence in the region largely stems from the “17+1” platform, established in 2012 to build ties with Central and Eastern European countries. Critics slammed the platform for not providing expected economic benefits. Lithuania pulled out of ’17+1′ at the start of 2021 after calling the group ‘divisive’.

Vilnius then decided to deepen its ties with Taiwan, the self-governing democratic island over which Beijing claims sovereignty. Taiwan opened a representative office in the Lithuanian capital last year and Lithuania plans to do the same in Taipei.

China reacted furiously with informal sanctions that halted most of its trade with Lithuania. Data compiled by China’s General Administration of Customs cited by Bloomberg shows that imports from Lithuania – mainly refined copper, furniture and wheat – fell 88.5% in dollar terms from 2021 over the past few years. first two months of the year.

So far, the dispute between China and Lithuania has had a limited effect on European companies operating in China, Jörg Wuttke, president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, told Al Jazeera.

“What he has done is further complicate EU-China relations and alert other EU member states to the fact that China is willing to use economic coercion in response to political problems,” Wuttke said, adding that the House “hopes that both sides can find ways to defuse tensions.

Asked about the prospects for Brussels and Beijing to relaunch talks on a bilateral investment agreement, known as the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), Wuttke noted that it was not on the agenda. official agenda for the April 1 summit.

“Zero-sum competition of ideologies”

“We see little chance of the CAI being ratified anytime soon,” he said. “The EU has explicitly stated that it will not ratify the CAI as long as Chinese counter-sanctions remain in place against several members of the European Parliament.”

However, the CAI freeze has not dampened European companies’ interest in the Chinese market. Some had planned to boost manufacturing investment in China before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and recent national outbreaks of the hyper-contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus. The fallout from the war and disruption to business caused by China’s strict citywide lockdowns have “given them pause”, Wuttke said.

French bank Societe Generale described China’s economy as “in distress” in an April research note, highlighting the consequences of the lockdowns.

Gabor Holch, a Shanghai-based management consultant who has worked in China since 2005, said politics is increasingly influencing Chinese government decision-making. Despite the economic damage caused by its quest to eradicate the coronavirus, “Chinese leaders still stick to the zero-Covid policy as the right way forward,” Holch told Al Jazeera. Beijing sees “a kind of zero-sum ideological competition” with the West, he said.

Holch said he expects “extremely nimble” multinational companies to adapt to a more politicized business environment in China, but European companies should exercise caution when sharing sensitive technologies with companies. Chinese companies likely to cooperate closely with Russia, such as in semiconductors and energy. sectors.

A European semiconductor maker “wouldn’t want to see its chipmaking technology go through four stages of separation and end up in a Russian drone,” he said.

Al Jazeera has contacted the Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the European Union for comment.

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