When European leaders recently pressed China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, to distance himself from Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, he doggedly stuck to prepared remarks for the video summit, shutting down any opening for their demands.
Speaking from the grandiose Great Hall of the People, he declared that China, as it had for years, welcomed the European Union as a pillar of an emerging multipolar world. But Mr. Xi also made clear that cajoling China about Russia was not the kind of assertiveness that he wanted.
Their talks were “open,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, told reporters afterward, before adding: “Open means that we exchanged very clearly opposing views.”
The awkward talks epitomized how China is struggling to ride out geopolitical shock waves from the war in Ukraine, and nowhere more so than in its relations with Europe.
For Chinese leaders, Europe was supposed to be the softer wing of the Western world, with neither the military power nor the will to contest China’s rise. Now, they risk missing the potentially far-reaching implications of the war, as Europe reassesses its security needs and Beijing’s intentions.
In Europe, “the narrative is becoming: This is what you get if you deal nicely with authoritarian regimes,” said Ivana Karásková, a researcher on Chinese foreign policy at Charles University in Prague. “It’s becoming not only about Russia; it’s also about China.”
In the longer term, Europe’s new focus on geopolitical risks and its closer ties to the United States could evolve into a more antagonistic stance toward Mr. Xi’s government, especially if Beijing stays close to Russia and shields it from economic sanctions.
Shortly before Mr. Xi’s summit with European officials, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, told his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, that Beijing wanted to take relations with Russia to “a higher level.”
Europe for now is consumed with the crises created by the invasion of Ukraine by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, including more than 4.6 million refugees. Many European governments have vowed a drastic upgrade of military spending and preparedness. Politicians in Berlin, Paris and other capitals are already discussing how far their newfound vigilance may extend to China, as well as Russia.
“The European line on China has been hardening for five or six years, but I think we are entering a new phase,” Noah Barkin, a Berlin-based analyst for the Rhodium Group who monitors Chinese ties with Europe, said in an interview. “There’s a realization in Europe that China may no longer be a partner, that it may increasingly be seen as a threat.”
Chinese officials appear unsure how to respond.
For years, Beijing tried to coax Europe closer as a trade and diplomatic partner, and warned against aligning with Washington’s efforts to offset China. Instead, Chinese officials argued, Europe could help cushion the world against American dominance, an especially potent message when the Trump administration disavowed the Paris climate accord and put tariffs on some European goods.
Yet even before the war, European disenchantment with Beijing was growing.
The European Union members and Britain were becoming increasingly critical of China’s clampdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang; its widening trade surplus with Europe; and its pugnacious diplomacy about Taiwan, the self-ruled island democracy that Beijing claims as its own. Last year, the European Parliament blocked an expansive trade agreement with China, citing its record on human rights, as well as its sanctions on European lawmakers and scholars.
“Communication on the Chinese side appears stuck to an E.U. that no longer exists,” said Francesca Ghiretti, an analyst on European-Chinese relations at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.
“China seems unable to grasp that the more assertive positioning that the E.U. has been developing is not the result of U.S. pressure,” she said. “Now the E.U. and China’s differences are on core issues. The response to Ukraine being a case in point.”
For its part, Beijing has been angered by European sanctions over Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and the European Union’s designation in 2019 of China as an emerging “systemic rival” in security, while still a major market for European exporters and a partner against climate change and other global threats.
Chinese diplomats maintain that Europe has misconstrued Mr. Xi’s intentions about the war in Ukraine, and that enmity from the United States forced Beijing closer to Russia. Mr. Xi obliquely warned the European Union not to align itself further with Washington’s efforts to counter Chinese power.
“We hope that the European side will form its own understanding of China, and adhere to its own autonomous policies toward China,” he told European officials at the summit.
Mr. Xi’s stick-to-the-script responses on Ukraine may reflect worries that Europe expects too much from Beijing. Beijing needed to do better at explaining that its influence over Mr. Putin is limited and brittle, said Wang Yiwei, the director of the Center for European Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, who sits on a government advisory panel.
“If China offended Russia, then nobody would be able to influence it,” Mr. Wang said in an interview. Others, he said, should not regard China “as if it was someone who can just put a phone call through to Putin, and then he’ll stop.”
China may yet be able to hold back the European Union from taking a much harder line against Beijing.
China and the European Union are each other’s biggest trading partners, and Beijing could lean on countries that depend heavily on Chinese consumers, particularly Europe’s largest economy, Germany. It could lobby countries like Hungary and Greece, which have previously stymied proposed E.U. statements critical of Beijing.
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Mr. Wang, the academic, said that the sanctions on Russia will also hurt European countries. That is likely to discourage measures that could antagonize China with its enormous market, because that would risk further economic damage and political turbulence across Europe.
“The most important thing is not how China balances things out with them. What’s most important is that when their own sanctions hurt themselves, they will fracture internally,” he said. “Europe will slowly come to understand China’s stance.”
So far, though, Chinese diplomacy is not winning friends in Europe.
Since the invasion, Chinese diplomats have told European counterparts that Europe is acting as a puppet of the Biden administration by lining up so firmly against Russia, said four European officials with knowledge of the discussions. They spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private talks.
Official Chinese media have echoed the criticism.
“The United States has forced Europe into dangerous straits,” said a commentary last month about Europe’s response to the war in Ukraine from China’s main official news agency, Xinhua.
“Europe needs to watch out against being stabbed in the back again by America,” said another commentary issued by China’s main television broadcaster, CCTV.
The depiction of Europe as a passive underling of Washington reflects the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy of insisting that the United States caused the war in Ukraine by endangering Russian security. But the message has irked European officials.
“We condemn Russian aggression against Ukraine and support that country’s sovereignty and democracy, not because we ‘follow the U.S. blindly’, as China sometimes suggests, but because it is genuinely our own position,” Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, wrote this month. “This was an important message for the Chinese leadership to hear.”
In 2014, Mr. Xi signaled his hopes for strong ties with the European Union by becoming the first Chinese president to visit Brussels for their annual summit. “China stands ready to work with the E.U. to let the sunlight of peace drive away the shadow of war,” Mr. Xi said that year in a speech to the College of Europe.
But in his latest summit with the European Union, Mr. Xi avoided using the word “war.” He spoke of Russia’s invasion as a “crisis” or “situation,” said two of the European officials briefed on the talks. Mr. Xi argued that sanctions on Russia — by implication, not the invasion itself — were largely to blame for rising energy and food prices across the world, they said.
“The Ukraine crisis must be properly handled, but we must not turn to reckless remedies in desperation,” Mr. Xi said, according to China’s official summary of the talks. “The world cannot become tied down by this issue.”
European leaders appeared unimpressed. There were not joint statements or uplifting investment announcements for this summit.
“The dialogue was everything but a dialogue,” Mr. Borrell, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, said in a speech after the summit. “We could not talk about Ukraine a lot, but we did not agree on anything else.”
Additional reporting by Claire Fu and Liu Yi.