'Pandora’s box': EU weighs changing relations with China
China's show of solidarity with Russia displeased officials in Brussels, where concerns are growing that Beijing is considering supplying arms to Moscow. But for now, there is no real desire to decouple from China.
If Xi Jinping chooses to "befriend a war criminal, it is our duty to get very serious about China," Lithuania's foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, told DW when asked what he thought about the Chinese president's three-day visit to Moscow and his meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
The International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Putin late last week, accusing him of war crimes.
The only way forward for the European Union now, Landsbergis said, is to take "first steps on de-risking and eventual decoupling from China. The sooner we start, the better for the union."
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Landsbergis told DW that it is the EU's "duty to get very serious on China."
But not everyone in Brussels believes such strong action is necessary. In conversation with DW, EU officials pointed out that Xi Jinping and Putin have met more than 40 times in recent years. That made the two leaders' display of unity "expectable," one official said on an anonymous basis.
The general feeling seems to be that China is taking advantage of Russia's weakness.
China is among the few countries that have avoided calling Russia's aggression in Ukraine an invasion. It has also abstained from all United Nations resolutions to condemn Russia. It continues to buy Russian oil and gas, and its officials and media have been criticized in many western countries for parroting the Kremlin's propaganda about the invasion.
President Xi's pledge of a no-limits friendship with Russia has further hurt China's relations with the EU, which are already strained.
How does China support Russia?
Although some Western allies are worried China might be considering providing weapons to Russia, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this week in Brussels that he hadn't seen any evidence that China was prepared to deliver lethal aid to Russia.
China has been supporting Russia's war efforts, however, in several indirect ways. This includes the ramping up of economic exchanges and exports of dual-use equipment, said Grzegorz Stec, an analyst at the Brussels office of the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a German foundation.
Among the equipment exports are "tires, trucks, clothing and other goods that can be used by the Russian military, although those are not specifically weapons," he told DW.
If the West were to find tangible proof of China providing large-scale military equipment to Russia, Stec pointed out, that would be "a red line" for the Europeans. But he recommended taking a cautious approach before accusing China of supplying weapons to Russia, given the magnitude of the potential geopolitical implications.
Now that China has scrapped its zero-COVID policies and is reopening its economy, "we may be in a period of diplomatic reopening and stabilization," he said, "but the stabilization is really fragile, and tensions remain."
These tensions include the deteriorating relations between the US and China, particularly over the Taiwan question, China's repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the EU's WTO dispute with China over its trade restrictions against member state Lithuania, Stec said.
"The EU doesn't want to face more economic destabilization. It is interested in keeping the relationship stable for now," he said.
"Redefining [the relationship] is like opening a political Pandora's box."
US push to link arms against China
This is one of the reasons why Brussels is reluctant to join US initiatives to contain China.
The administration of US President Joe Biden has been trying to persuade the EU and its members to work together to confront China. Those efforts have only been partly successful. In March, the Netherlands moved to ban the sale of advanced microchip technology to China and Germany announced a security review into critical components of its mobile phone networks provided by Chinese manufacturers Huawei and ZTE.
In general, however, many EU countries are hesitant to pull away from the profitable Chinese market — first and foremost Germany, whose biggest trading partner is China.
The statement by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January that the EU wants to "de-risk" but not "decouple" from China highlights the EU's reluctance to turn its back on China.
Ursula von der Leyen speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Ursula von der Leyen speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Regardless of this reluctance, Europe's attitude towards China is more skeptical than it has been in decades, said Reinhard Bütikofer, chair of the European Parliament's China delegation.
"The Chinese haven't been very successful in dealing with the Europeans lately," he told DW. "I would say they have squandered a lot of the political capital that they used to have."
Along with several other European lawmakers, Bütikofer was blacklisted by China in March 2021 after the EU imposed sanctions on Chinese officials who stood accused of being involved in human rights abuses against the Uyghurs.
As consequence, the EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement was put on ice.
Since then, however, Bütikofer has been approached by Chinese diplomats, as have many other EU politicians, he told DW.
A Chinese charm offensive
China analyst Stec believes that a new Chinese "charm offensive" led by the new Chinese ambassador to the EU, Fu Congin, is underway.
He explained that Fu had been extremely active in testing two key ideas: First, the simultaneous lifting of sanctions imposed by the EU on China, and by China on the EU, something he said Fu was presenting as "a supposed goodwill gesture from the side of Beijing, given that the EU imposed its sanctions first."
When this was completed, he continued, Fu was hoping for the unblocking of the ratification of the investment agreement between the EU and China.
However, EU politician Bütikofer, who represents the German Greens in the European Parliament, thought the chances of getting the investment agreement back on the table were "extremely slim."
The fallout of the no-limits friendship
There doesn't seem to be much appetite to start a new discussion on the EU's position on China, sources told DW, as long as member states hold different positions: Some of them are willing to focus on continuing trade relations, while others are ready to align more with US policy on China.
That might be why China is not even on the agenda of the upcoming EU summit on 23-24 March, at least not officially.
"The Chinese are trying to balance two incompatible goals. Being best buddies with Putin and being good friends of the Europeans at the same time," Bütikofer said.
He made clear he doesn't think they can achieve both.
"As Abraham Lincoln said, you can fool some of the people all of the time or all the people some of the time. But you cannot fool all the people all the time."
In concrete political terms, he explained, this meant that they would "fail if they insist on their no-limits friendship with the Russians."