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EU-China Summit: Seeking a Constructive Chinese Role to End Putin’s War

EU-China Summit: Seeking a Constructive Chinese Role to End Putin’s War
 Mathieu Duchâtel
Resident Senior Fellow and Director of International Studies
 Angela Stanzel
Associate in the Asia Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).
 Justyna Szczudlik
PhD - Deputy Head of Research, and China analyst with the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM).

China’s tacit endorsement of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is creating more than a problematic context for the upcoming EU-China summit, scheduled to take place on April 1. Some argue that the EU should simply cancel the summit and focus its foreign policy energy on working with constructive partners. The European Union seems determined to explore the possibility of a Chinese diplomatic role, even though it remains unclear to what end: a ceasefire, political settlement, or "peace talks", as alluded to by Wang Yi. Talking about mediation, Joseph Borrell even stated that "it has to be China, I trust in that".

However, a mediation role for China appears a long way away, if not highly unlikely. In the lead-up to the summit, rather than prioritizing mediation, the EU should draw clear objectives for what a joint political statement with China on the Ukraine war would look like. Short of a joint statement - which would be difficult to reach in the current stage of EU-China relations - the EU should seek to alter China’s diplomatic language regarding the Russian invasion. The seven points below, listed by order of achievability, serve as suggested outcomes for EU-China diplomacy.

  • China should exert its influence over Russia to promote an immediate ceasefire. China should press for the respect of humanitarian corridors. 
  • China should explicitly condemn the use of force against civilian targets, like it did during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • China should state that Ukraine has legitimate security interests and a right to self-defense.
  • China should state that it respects Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.
  • China should announce a major increase of humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Currently, China’s contribution (roughly €2.1 million) is minimal compared to those of other countries (the EU: €500 million) and is not in line with China’s economic might.
  • China should state that it has no intention to revise the European security architecture or support Russia’s revisionist approach to the European security order.
  • China should recognize that the "situation in Ukraine" is a war of Russian aggression, not a special military operation.

It is important to note that these objectives may be overly ambitious, or may only be reached at a cost that Europe is not willing to pay.

The question is whether China could agree to some of these objectives without seeking European concessions on other policy issues. There are at least three factors that may lead China to reorient its current position in favor of Ukraine’s resistance on the basis of self-interest calculation:

  • China has an interest to maintain market access in the EU, its first export market. So far this access is not threatened, but if China were to move from tacit endorsement to active and material support of Russia, EU-China relations would dramatically deteriorate. This is a risk China may consider as high, especially in this period of economic slowdown.
  • China has an interest to avoid strong transatlantic unity on China policy. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has given new life to NATO as the backbone of Europe’s peace and security. Simultaneously, Central Europe is heavily leaning on the US (hoping for more US military presence in the region), and is experiencing rising distrust of China. Given that the 16+1 (China-Central Europe cooperation format) is on a path towards slow or sudden disintegration, China may calculate this is the right time to send a political signal to the Europeans at the EU-China summit, and prevent further distrust vis-à-vis China. 
  • With the Belt and Road Initiative, China has shown an ambition to lead the developing world. 141 countries voted at the UNGA in favor of the resolution denouncing the war of aggression against Ukraine. Therefore, one may optimistically consider that Beijing is being confronted with reputational considerations beyond the West, or that China could seek to obtain a position of moral authority. 

However, it is important to note that States are sovereign in determining their interests, and operate within their own normative frameworks. Therefore, efforts by foreign policy analysts to anticipate China’s so-called "rational calculation" is a risky business. Still, there is limited ambiguity in China’s position. The Chinese readout of the Xi-Biden video call uses the term "war" (早日停火止战), is the first to mention Ukrainian - as opposed to Russian only - security concerns (化解俄乌双方的安全忧虑), and includes a call to avoid civilian casualties (避免平民伤亡). Moreover, a rather lengthy paragraph about the economy signals that China is concerned about the outcomes of the war, and particularly the sanctions. In addition, Xi Jinping emphasized China’s long-standing position to "oppose wars" (中方历来主张和平,反对战争). Compared to the mainstream narrative in Chinese media - coming from leading public intellectuals, and the Vice-Foreign Minister Le Yucheng himself, who mostly accused NATO’s expansion of being responsible for the war, this is a much softer version. 

The Chinese propaganda machine is following a dangerous course.

Since the Xi-Biden video call, these moderate phrases have been replicated in the new MFA pressers and readouts. More broadly, however, the degree to which China’s information space is saturated with pro-Russian narratives is extremely disturbing, and bodes poorly for a Chinese constructive role. 

This ranges from designating NATO’s expansion as the main culprit of the war - which constitutes a justification of Russia’s aggression - to the incessant disinformation regarding US biological and chemical warfare facilities. In short, the Chinese propaganda machine is following a dangerous course.

How wide can the gap between propaganda and actual policy be? Mao Zedong showed that anti-US propaganda can be halted immediately when a greater strategic gain is within reach. In the radically different context of the Sino-Soviet split, China actively condemned Soviet invasions. In 1979, for instance, Chinese leadership condemned the Soviet coup and its military buildup in Afghanistan, calling it the worst escalation of Soviet expansionism in over a decade. Even more so, in its 1968 reaction to the suppression of the Prague Spring, China accused the Soviet Union of a "monstrous crime", linking the invasion to Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia.

China’s two strategic goals for endorsing Russia will certainly remain unchanged: to undermine the existing Western-led global order, and maximize the chances of its authoritarian regime survival. For Xi Jinping, walking away from the February 4 joint statement with Putin is not an easy task. But Beijing might consider a tactical adjustment of its Russia policy. The possible changes could be modest. It could simply entail toning down pro-Russian propaganda and thinking twice about providing Moscow with material support. Faced with media coverage of the horror of Ukraine’s shelling and the killing of civilians by Russian troops, Beijing is confronting unprecedented global pressure. The West’s unified determination to decouple from Russia may also lead Beijing to rethink its approach to Putin’s invasion, in an attempt to save face.

As European diplomats attempt to tilt China’s political narrative on the invasion of Ukraine, they may face Chinese demands for reciprocal concessions. So far, this has not been obvious from China’s diplomacy towards Europe in the lead-up to the summit. In fact, Beijing appears to be seeking ways to put the EU-China relationship on a positive track, but without seeing Ukraine as the top priority to address with the EU. But China’s concrete interests are known, and may surface at any point in the conversation: a change of name of the Taiwanese representative office in Lithuania; the ratification of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment; the end of Europe’s gradual shift towards the Indo-Pacific.

Beijing appears to be seeking ways to put the EU-China relationship on a positive track, but without seeing Ukraine as the top priority to address with the EU. 

In preparation of the summit, it is vital that Europe engages in close coordination with Ukraine, but also with the United States and Japan, in order to make it clear that a constructive Chinese role involves rebuilding the foundations for political trust, rather than a transactional offer.

The invasion of Ukraine underlines how important it is that the conduct of Europe-China relations avoids relying too heavily on the Franco-German tandem. The Macron/Scholz/Xi discussion provides an inadequate diplomatic format for stopping the war. Xi Jinping’s reassurance of the French and German leaders has not convinced the rest of Europe. This presents an opportunity to revive the Weimar format, with the Triangle offering a political link between the western and eastern parts of the Union. This trilateral format has an important political role to play, particularly with regards to addressing the inflow of Ukrainian refugees into the EU. It could provide a high-level channel to address Russia’s hard security threat towards the EU and NATO (especially with regard to article 5), and China’s tacit endorsement of the invasion of Ukraine. It is worth recalling that the Weimar Triangle has already been active in Ukraine: in 2014, the heads of the respective foreign ministries gathered for a joint mission. It is vital that France and Germany recognize Poland’s incomparable political weight on Europe’s Eastern front. Conversely, China would benefit from being directly exposed to the threat perception of countries risking Russian strikes in order to maintain peace in Europe. By accepting the Weimar format, China would get a far more balanced and accurate view of European perceptions. 

A constructive Chinese role in the Ukraine war appears unlikely. However, it is imperative that Europe uses all diplomatic channels to warn China of the damage greater support for the Russian invasion would cause to EU-China ties, and tries shifting the Chinese position towards helping the cause of peace and defending Ukrainian sovereignty. 


Copyright: Alexander Zemlianichenko / POOL / AFP

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