EU, Chinese Leaders Meet Amid Backdrop of Ukraine Conflict

Plans for a European Union-China summit were already laid before Russia invaded Ukraine last month — although Beijing’s formal announcement it would attend only came this week. On the agenda are issues like climate change, trade and what the EU describes as “universal values.” But the Ukraine conflict tops it.

Eric Mamer, spokesman for the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, says:

“We consider that the duty or all countries in the U.N. is to work to stop this conflict, to get Putin’s troops to withdraw and to respect the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Ukraine. This is a message which I think is addressed not just to China but to every country in the world that believes in the principles of the UN charter.”

China casts itself as a neutral party to the Ukraine conflict. While Beijing says it’s ‘grieved’ by the war, Chinese and Russian foreign ministers meeting this week reaffirmed their strategic ties.

These messages aren’t new. But they offer an awkward backdrop for Friday’s virtual summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Li Keqiang and top EU officials Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel.

“China and the EU want very different things out of this summit….”

Francesca Ghiretti is an EU-China analyst at German think-tank, the Mercator Institute for China Studies. She says China hopes the summit will offer insights into the EU’s more geopolitical nature, and its closer ties with Washington under the Biden administration.

She says the EU wants China to pressure Russia to end the war in Ukraine — or at least guarantee humanitarian corridors. Like the U.S., Europe also wants to ensure Beijing does not provide Moscow with military or economic support

“They want one thing that is common to both of them — and that one thing is keep the communication between Beijing and Brussels going.”

The EU and China are major trading partners but their ties have frayed over the years. Finalizing an investment pact between the two is on hold.

“The (EU) Commission decided in 2019 to deem China a systemic rival.”

Tara Varma who heads the Paris office for the European Council on Foreign Relations policy institute, says:

“It was not even about values, but it was the idea that our systems of governance were not compatible.”

More recently, China has blocked imports from EU member Lithuania for drawing closer to Taiwan. Earlier this month, Lithuania called for scrapping the summit, until Beijing indicates whether it stands with Russia or the West. Still, experts say the 27-member bloc is not in lock step on China.

Again, analyst Ghiretti:

“So both parties actually enter the summit knowing that there won’t be any deliverables, and they know that probably there will be no joint statement at the end of it.”

The summit’s biggest takeaway may be that the EU and China have agreed to keep talking.