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Can China and the EU Work together amidst Difficulties?

Jun 16, 2022
  • Cui Hongjian

    Director of the Department of European Studies, China Institute of International Studies

Implications of Russia-Ukraine Conflict for China-EU Relations 

As a geopolitical confrontation with global implications in the European region, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has an important and complex impact on China-EU relations. First, due to the different perceptions of the nature of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and related interests, there are differences in positions and discrepancies in mutual expectations between China and Europe, with political mutual trust being put to the test. Second, the Russia-Ukraine conflict along with the sanctions and counter-sanctions struggle between the West and Russia have exposed the fragility of the current international economic, energy and supply chain system, causing continuous damage to the foundation of economic globalization, thereby also eroding the economic cornerstone for China-EU cooperation. Finally, as the major powers of the US, Russia and Europe are involved in the conflict in different ways and to varying degrees, a highly complex pattern of major power relations has emerged, exacerbating instability in the transforming period of the international order and putting Sino-European relations under greater strategic pressure. Although the Russia-Ukraine conflict has become an uncertain factor in China-EU relations, an early resolution of the conflict in a peaceful manner, avoiding humanitarian crises, reducing economic and livelihood losses and maintaining the stability of the international landscape is in the common interest of the international community, including that of China and Europe, and should be the direction of joint efforts by both sides. 

Political Mutual Trust under Test 

Needless to say, China and Europe have different perceptions of the causes and nature of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and have accordingly adopted different positions. In the European view, the irreconcilable contradiction between Russia's self-positioning as a great power (empire) seeking a "sphere of influence" and the preference of small and medium-sized countries for collective security protection has become the source of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Most European countries emphasize the "defensive nature" of NATO and do not accept Russia's claim that it has "the right to fight back against the expansion of NATO's security space" and therefore consider the nature of the conflict as "Russian military aggression against Ukraine". In contrast, the Chinese side mainly sees the cause and nature of the conflict through the lens of regional security architecture, and believes that the essence of the conflict is the use of NATO and Ukraine by the United States as a tool to confront Russia, which has led to a strong Russian backlash. In essence, it is a serious consequence of the regional security rivalry between major powers. Therefore, China holds that the security concerns of Russia and Ukraine are equally important and should be equally respected and treated, and expects European countries to play the role of regional security protagonists, not only to take measures that help cease the war, but also to establish a balanced, effective and sustainable regional security architecture to avoid the recurrence of conflicts and achieve long-term peace and security. 

Since the Russia-Ukraine conflict is taking place on Europe's "doorstep" and China is not a direct party involved, it is not surprising that the two sides have diverging perceptions and positions on the conflict. However, Europe, influenced by preconceived notions and U.S. intentions, has made some unrealistic demands on the Chinese side, including open condemnation and participation in sanctions against Russia, and further proposed to "link" China's stance with China-EU relations. Against the backdrop of the wide gap in positions, the recent meeting between the Chinese and European leaders showed that the expectations and concerns of the two sides are not in sync. Although both sides cherish the hard-won opportunities for communication, the different perceptions and positions on the Russia-Ukraine conflict have become a new obstacle to the advancement of bilateral cooperation between China and Europe. The decline in political mutual trust between China and Europe since the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic has not been significantly improved. 

Economic and Trade Cooperation Affected 

As the most serious geopolitical crisis since the end of World War II, Russia-Ukraine conflict has continued to impact on the world order and international rules, with incalculable consequences and losses. In two months' time, the conflict and the sanctions and counter-sanctions between the West and Russia have seriously affected the world economy, trade and energy stability. According to international agencies, economic growth in the EU is expected to fall by more than 2 percent in 2022, and the impact on China's economy is also reflected in stock market shocks, shrinking assets and lower growth expectations. 

The impact on China-Europe trade and economic cooperation is more complex. On the one hand, Europe has threatened to "punish" China with trade measures if China "provides military support to Russia or helps Russia to circumvent sanctions". On the other hand, based on excessive speculation on China-Russia ties, European public opinion is re-hyping the idea of “getting rid of over-dependence on the Chinese market to maintain supply chain security”, which has been in the air since the epidemic. To satisfy the narrow-minded "demand" of some conservative forces in Europe and to achieve "strategic autonomy", the trend of politicization and securitization of China-Europe trade and economy has further enhanced, and the economic and trade base for China-Europe relations, the common interests of interdependence and the policy path of pragmatic cooperation have been affected. 

Strategic Mutual Trust under Pressure 

Major powers such as the U.S., Russia and Europe are involved in the Russia-Ukraine conflict in different ways and to different degrees. The interaction among major powers is highly complex, with signs of a new round of groupings. From the current situation, the competitive pattern between China and the US remains unchanged; the China-Russia partnership is solid; the confrontation between the US and Russia is intensifying; Europe and Russia are moving towards confrontation; and the coordination between the US and Europe is strengthening, while the Sino-European relations have become the main pressure-bearers of the changes in the relations between these pairs of major powers. The Sino-European strategic mutual trust, which has traditionally been based on jointly upholding multilateralism and advocating peaceful ways of conflict resolution, is under the pressure of bloc confrontation and power politics, and the space for managing Sino-European relations becomes limited with increased variables in bilateral ties. 

In pursuit of its own strategic goals, the U.S. is taking advantage of the Russia-Ukraine conflict to mobilize Europe, not only to forge a common front against Russia, but also to strengthen policy coordination with Europe on China by rendering the "China-Russia alliance". In the name of " preserving a rule-based order", the U.S. is using bilateral mechanisms such as the U.S.-EU Dialogue on China and Indo-Pacific strategy, as well as the NATO framework, not only to unify ideas but also to coordinate actions. By hyping the "China-Russia bloc" and drawing an analogy between Ukraine and Taiwan, the U.S. not only deliberately "helps" Europe to intensify conceptual and institutional confrontation with China, but also encourages Europe to "actively" intervene in Asia-Pacific affairs and to provide support and assistance for America's strategy toward China in China's neighborhood. In so doing, the U.S. instigation and some voices within Europe are resonating in the same frequency and are transferring fear and hostility toward Russia to China. Nonetheless, China who decides her position based on own perception of the nature of the conflict and assessment on major power relations, will not yield to U.S. pressure and can hardly sway between Europe and Russia, hence the strategic pressure on China-Europe relations continues to rise. 

China and Europe Can Make A Difference 

Given the aforementioned difficulties of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on China-EU relations, it is not that China and Europe cannot make a difference. 

First of all, the positions of China and Europe, despite their differences, also share common grounds. China sincerely empathizes with Europe and deeply deplores the costs and losses it has suffered. Not only is war reigniting on Europe's "doorstep," but it could also escalate and spread to other countries, ending the state of peace in Europe since the end of the Cold War. As China has been ravaged by wars in history and is currently facing huge security risks brought about by power politics, it should be a common goal for China and Europe to cease war and resolve conflicts through diplomatic means, build mutual trust using political tools as soon as possible, try to reach reconciliation and rebuild a security architecture for lasting peace. In such endeavor, the leaders of China and Europe have made several calls on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which has become an important component of the international community's efforts to facilitate peace and talks. 

Second, both China and Europe are committed to avoiding and mitigating the humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict. With the conflict lasting for more than 100 days, a large number of Ukrainian civilians have been killed and injured and more than 7 million refugees have been uprooted from their homes. This has exerted tremendous economic, financial, political and social risks for Europe, and has also put enormous humanitarian pressure on the international community. Considering humanitarian assistance as a priority as important as peace talks, China takes actions to provide humanitarian assistance to Ukraine in terms of material supplies, but also offers financial support to Ukraine's neighboring countries receiving refugees. In addition to strengthening cooperation within the framework of the United Nations and the International Federation of the Red Cross, China and Europe can put humanitarian assistance on the bilateral agenda and make it a priority for cooperation. 

Third, both China and Europe want to reduce the spillover effects of the conflict and avoid excessive impact on their respective economies, energy and supply chain security. China and Europe are each other's largest trading partners, with close cooperation in investment, industry and supply chain, and have shown strong resilience to withstand the hardships of the pandemic. Despite Europe's involvement in the sanctions against Russia, the close economic and trade ties between Europe and Russia, especially the huge energy interdependence, have not only made the sanctions ineffective, but also led to a series of serious consequences in Europe such as inflation, energy tensions and resource shortages. The multiple losses of sanctions on Europe, Russia and the world economy are becoming increasingly visible. Based on the consistent position of opposing unilateral sanctions and maintaining the stability of world economy, China hopes that the European side will consider the consequences of sanctions with calmness and stop abusing them, and that both sides will share the common concern of promoting the recovery of world economy and ensuring the security of energy and supply chain, and should start practical cooperation in this regard. 

Finally, the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is converging with the game of great powers, greatly weakening the international rules and global governance with the United Nations as the core, thus China and Europe, which share the consensus on multilateralism, will both suffer greatly. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has caused a serious rift in the international community, with a rising deficit of mutual trust among major powers and over-spilt geopolitical conflicts. As the "two major forces" sharing the belief in regional and world peace, China-EU relations should go beyond economic and trade cooperation and cultivate new areas of collaboration in international crisis management and global governance, by enhancing strategic mutual trust. From diverse positions but with clear common interests, China and Europe can work together on mitigating the current Russia-Ukraine conflict and rebuilding peace in the future. This can be an important starting point for value-added cooperation between China and Europe.

 

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