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China's Tolerance for Russia Comes at Cost to Relations With EU

By Ralph Jennings April 07, 2022

China's patience with Russia over the war in Ukraine has set back its prized ties with the European Union despite tentative gains late last year, analysts say.

At the first European Union-China summit in nearly two years, on April 1, the EU warned China against supporting Russia's war in Ukraine or interfering with international sanctions against Moscow. During the two-hour video event, EU officials asked China, as a U.N. Security Council member, to push Russia to end the war.

China has cast itself as a neutral nation toward the war while sustaining close economic and strategic ties with Russia.

"This contributes to the European Union's collective irritation at China for supporting what looks like flagrant violation of international law," said Alan Chong, associate professor at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and continues to pound the neighboring country despite talks and economic sanctions against Moscow by Western governments.

In October, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke with two high-level officials in Europe to try to improve relations. Although the two sides reached no substantive agreements, they spoke cordially after the EU froze an investment deal with Beijing in early 2021 and sent a parliamentary delegation to Taiwan. China considers self-ruled Taiwan part of its territory.

China was hoping then to build trade and investment ties with individual European countries as the Asian power grappled with a half-decade of acrimony with its old Cold War rival the United States, analysts told VOA last year.

Sino-European ties "marginally" improved after the October event, and China regarded the EU as the "more acceptable" face of the West compared with the United States, Chong said. He said certain leaders in the 27-nation EU bloc had become more "pragmatic" toward China.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine has set back China's search for friends in Europe, said Sean King, senior vice president with the New York-based political consultancy Park Strategies. "It's a new day in Europe and not a welcome one for authoritarians Putin and Xi," he said.

China's trade curbs last year against Lithuania resurfaced as a thorny Sino-EU issue on April 1, as did market access for European companies.

EU member Lithuania offended Beijing by letting Taiwan use its name on a de facto embassy in the European country.

European leaders see Chinese action against Lithuania as undermining their unity as a bloc and "coming at the cost of values" such as democracy, said Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo. China had retaliated against the Czech Republic in 2020 over its own close ties with Taiwan.

"The economic coercion against Lithuania and Czech are both examples of China really bullying European member states," Nagy said.

At the summit, EU leaders again raised issues over China's treatment of its own ethnic minorities, including the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region.

On the economic side, EU leaders talked to China April 1 about making their relationship "fairer," creating a "level playing field," and rebalancing "bilateral trade and investment relations," European Council President Charles Michel said after the summit.

European leaders resent the Chinese government's ownership stake in major companies and the subsidies offered them, said Jayant Menon, visiting senior fellow with the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute's Regional Economic Studies Program in Singapore. They also see China as not "open" enough with data transfers and the digital economy, he added.

"Those are the things [where] I think generally China is often tagged as being problematic in the world trade arena, and I think it would certainly be picked up by the Europeans as well," Menon said.

China is still the EU's No. 1 trading partner and the source of billions of dollars per year in direct investment. But their issues have "stalemated" after eight years of talks toward an EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, said Chen Yi-fan, assistant professor of diplomacy and international relations at Tamkang University in Taiwan. Talks were iced last year.

The agreement would tackle market openness and any forced transfers of technology targeting European investors.

China sounded conciliatory after last week's summit. The EU and China must "take the lead in defending the international system with the U.N. at its core" and defer to international law, Beijing's official Xinhua News Agency said Monday. China will "stay committed to deepening reform and further opening up" its markets, Xinhua added, quoting Xi.

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