EU leaders urged to be tough on China if it backs Russia in Ukraine

Bloc pressed to threaten sanctions at bilateral summit amid concerns about global authoritarian alliance

EU leaders are being urged to tell China it will face sanctions if it offers military aid to Russia for the war in Ukraine, amid concerns about a deepening authoritarian alliance that threatens the rules-based international order.

Senior EU and Chinese leaders are expected to hold discussions on Friday at a video summit that is likely to be dominated by the war.

EU diplomats said the the bloc’s representatives needed to pass on a message that Beijing would pay a price for any intervention in support of Russia’s war.

“Our expectation is that the summit is not business as usual,” one senior EU diplomat said. “The message should be clear: any military or financial support of China to Russia, also to circumvent sanctions, will have serious consequences for EU-China relations.”

A second diplomat said the summit would be a defining moment that would shape the relationship between Brussels and Beijing for years to come. “It’s pretty clear that if they help Russia in the way that they provide weapons, or help circumvent sanctions, this will open up all kinds of possibilities, not least in a very firm transatlantic alliance,” the diplomat said.

“The EU won’t take it lightly if China openly takes sides with Russia,” they added, saying that there was a “big convergence” on the issue among the EU’s 27 member states.

China has denied reports that it was prepared to provide Russia with weapons. Zhang Pei, a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies, which is under China’s foreign ministry, said Beijing had been alarmed in recent weeks by Europe “copying the US rulebook by claiming that China is considering providing military assistance to Russia”. China has accused the US of spreading misinformation.

Beijing has abstained on UN security council resolutions condemning the war. It has also echoed, and amplified, Kremlin talking points in official media outlets, blaming Nato for the conflict and recycling conspiracy theories that the US and Ukraine had been pursuing a biological weapons programme together. China’s foreign ministry has insisted on what some western analysts see as a “pro-Russia neutrality” approach.

Three weeks before Russia launched its war on Ukraine, Vladimir Putin met his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at the Winter Olympics in Beijing. They released a statement on 4 February that pledged a “no limits” partnership and declared there were “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation”.

EU diplomats are not convinced Xi was informed of Putin’s intention to wage a full-scale war on Ukraine and believe Beijing is worried about its Covid-hit economy, but they nevertheless see a new authoritarian axis emerging.

At the Munich security conference last month, the EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, described the China-Russia pact as an “act of defiance” and a “revisionist manifesto” against the rules-based international order and universal rights.

Reinhard Bütikofer, the head of the European parliament’s Chinese relations delegation, told reporters that relations were “more difficult and conflictual” than they had been in a long time. Beijing has imposed sanctions on Bütikofer and accused him of “pushing an anti-China agenda”.

The 4 February statement was “clearly directed towards creating a new world order in which authoritarian great-power politics would dominate over the international rule of law”, he said, adding that “China has given political support to the Russian aggression against Ukraine”.

“China abstained in two votes in the UN security council and the UN general assembly, but these abstentions can hardly shroud China’s abstention in ambiguity,” he said. “The veil is threadbare and it fools no one.”

Bütikofer, a veteran German Green MEP, declined to be drawn on the details of possible sanctions against Beijing, but said “proof that China supports Russian military efforts in Ukraine … would have to trigger action by the European Union to punish China for that”.

EU-China relations have been on a downward slide since 2020, when – pushed by the former German chancellor Angela Merkel – the bloc signed an investment deal with Beijing. The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) quickly stalled in the European parliament, however, over concerns about reports of human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

European experts say that as long as MEPs such as Bütikofer remain on Chinese sanctions lists, the CAI will not be revived.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated European efforts to reduce its dependence on Chinese goods and supply chains. Casting a further chill is a diplomatic dispute between Lithuania and China, after the Baltic nation announced it was establishing mutual diplomatic posts with Taiwan.

Outwardly at least, China’s expectations of the summit are rather more positive. The country’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, said on Wednesday that Beijing hoped it could “promote the sustained and sound development of China-EU relations and inject stability and positive energy into the complex and turbulent international situation”.

Chinese state media have consistently blamed the US and Nato for pushing Moscow into starting the war in Ukraine, but Michael Reiterer, a former EU diplomat and currently a distinguished professor at Brussels School of Governance, said it was Putin who brought Nato back to life.

“Macron had declared it brain dead, and Trump despised it,” he said.


Jennifer Rankinin Brussels and Vincent Ni China affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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