The recently concluded Sino-European summit saw a heated and at-times constructive exchange of views between Brussels and Beijing over a wide range of issues. Looming over all prospective agenda items of collaboration and contention, however, was the War in Ukraine.
For all the talk of collaboration hitherto concerning Beijing and Brussels working together to resolve the crisis, much of this talk hangs upon the contingent assumption that it would be straightforward to facilitate such synergy. This is untrue – there are three potent barriers that must be overcome, in order for Sino-European collaboration to have a chance at getting off the ground to begin with.
First, the two parties have vastly divergent assessments of their own, and each other’s reactions. Beijing views Brussels as ostensibly pressured by the U.S.-led NATO alliance in supporting perceived NATO provocation in Ukraine; China frames itself as a pacifist, non-aligned actor, though evidence suggests that this framing has yielded largely mixed results at best when it comes to international optics. Brussels is suspicious of Beijing’s attempt to have the cake and eat it – no less amplified by Beijing’s reticence in calling out mass atrocities and violence perpetrated by the Russian army; additionally, Europeans view Beijing’s performative neutrality as in line with the regionally prevalent narrative that China is pivoting towards a hardening, anti-Western stance on international affairs.
More systematically, communicative disparities and barriers between the European Union and China render them both deeply suspicious of the other’s motivations. Brussels views Beijing as offering at least some degree of tacit support towards Putin’s unbridled ambitions, whilst Beijing diplomats and bureaucrats are of the view that Brussels has no de facto political agency, and thus is acting as a proxy for Washington in its containment campaign against China and Russia. The latter perception runs contrary to the facts – the EU is indeed strategically autonomous; it is just that its member states opt to exercise such autonomy in collectively repudiating what many deem to be the greatest geopolitical threat to their stability since 1945.
Such misaligned assessments are amplified by the second factor – the political-pragmatic obstacles on both sides concerning what is demanded. Brussels expects Beijing to come out unambiguously against the Kremlin, and to support the European-led sanctions effort against Putin and his associates. Such expectations unfortunately run into the empirical reality that elements in the Chinese establishment are precipitously convinced that the West seeks to encircle and weaken China; that the “enemy of my enemy is a friend.” Such Manichean thinking may not be veracious, but has taken root amidst increasingly fraught Sino-American-European relations. On the other hand, China wants Brussels to come to this ‘reckoning’ concerning its self-interest – namely, the vast economic and energy-related costs of pressing on with further sanctions on Russia. Yet this anticipatory demand fails to take heed of the extent and intensity of unanimous popular backlash towards Russia for its acts of aggression. Few European regimes, save from those who possess deeply embedded affinities with the Kremlin in the first place, are likely to be receptive towards Chinese rhetoric in this case.
Finally, it goes without saying that the interests of China and Europe are asymmetrically and differently impacted by the ongoing war. China has incurred relatively minimal economic loss in relation to the disruption of supply chains and markets in Ukraine (though the subtly consolidated presence of Chinese firms in Russia might well have offset the cost), yet its perceived embroilment in the crisis has led to substantial reputational loss at the international level, with second-order implications for the country’s financial stability. On the other hand, the European Union has been presented with a sizable security, credibility, economic, and humanitarian disaster on its doorstep. The calamities and costs inflicted upon Europe by the invasion are hard to ignore. The varying degrees and nature of ‘skin in the game’ are likely to render Beijing’s and Brussels’ (as well as its respective member economies’) optimal preferred options highly different – aligning them is a real challenge.
Yet however difficult it may be, Beijing and Brussels must come together in brokering at least some kind of pragmatic resolution to the war in Ukraine. The case for this is largely humanitarian-moral – millions of Ukrainian citizens have been displaced; thousands injured or killed; hundreds of cities and settlements bereft of intact infrastructure under the gunfire from both parties. On the other hand, ordinary Russian citizens with no active role in the war whatsoever, have come to bear the consequences for the actions perpetrated by their regime – from sanctions, embargoes, to cancellation of civil society and deeply rooted exchanges, the Russian populace has also suffered, albeit to a far lesser extent than their Ukrainian counterparts on balance, under the military campaign.
I harbour no illusions – in thinking that a perfect alignment or agreement would be possible. Beijing and Brussels should, however, settle for less, as a theory of the second best. Meeting mid-way is not palatable to the puritan-idealist, but necessary – China’s buy-in and agreement to supporting and enabling ceasefire, is instrumental in the latter’s success. Europe and China alike should pledge to massively dial up humanitarian efforts (to give credit where it is due, Chinese Red Cross has played a significant role in supplying humanitarian aid to Ukraine, though this fact is oft-underdiscussed by official state media outlets in China).
More structurally, Brussels should extend an active olive branch to China, in inviting it to conjoin with Europe in mediating the crisis and adopting a pacificist, conflict resolution stance, in lieu of perhaps taking the vocal and explicit stance that the European Union has previously called upon China to deliver. It would be politically impossible for Beijing to U-turn 180 degrees on Russia, yet Beijing should equally recognise that its current policy of “Don’t Support. Don’t Condemn” quite simply won’t cut it.
In the longer term, all parties in the situation should recognise two core normative claims – first, Ukraine’s absolute right to territorial integrity and sovereignty (values that Beijing has consistently referred to crafting its foreign policy); second, the valid parts of Russia’s concerns with regards to the presence of Anglo-European powers in its backyard. I do not, by any means, subscribe to the view that NATO alone caused the Ukraine war – that would be an unduly essentialist view. Yet it does behove all actors to exercise pragmatic restraint, whilst acknowledging the voices of citizens in Ukraine and other Eastern European states, in determining what a sustainable modus vivendi to the region ought to look like.
Ultimately, it is tempting to reduce wars and conflicts to questions of grand geopolitics. Yet make no mistake – whilst all this grandiose talk is unfolding over the pages of spilled ink, human lives, families, and ordinary citizens’ welfare are what’s at stake. Both Europe and China alike should come together to facilitate an effective and enforced ceasefire – not just out of self-interest or political reasons, or alliance systems and treaty commitments, but because that’s the decent and right thing to do.