Cold reality: How Europe is adjusting to China’s support for Putin

To address the systemic challenge China poses, the EU will also need to address the fallout in the global south of Russia’s war on Ukraine

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a media conference at the end of an EU China summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Friday, April 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a media conference at the end of an EU China summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Friday, April 1, 2022

A summit that leaves relations worse than they were before is generally not considered a success. By this measure, the recent EU-China summit was a disaster. But these are exceptional times for Europe – and Chinese leaders had to realise that. They failed to fully appreciate the profound impact that their tacit support for Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine would have on the mood in Brussels. European leaders did not mince words on either Russian aggression or their expectations of China as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. This has put EU-China relations on a new footing – one based on a more realistic and pragmatic acceptance of the realities that have emerged in the relationship over the last few years. In this sense, the summit was thus a success: it was a rare show of diplomatic clarity from the European Union, in what European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described in the subsequent press conference as a “frank exchange of opposing views”.

Relations between the EU and China have been deeply strained for years. Before the summit, there was some hope in Brussels and in member states’ capitals that China would be willing to help end Russia’s war on Ukraine or, failing that, at least commit to not undermining the sanctions that the United States, the EU, and their allies imposed on Russia. This could have, at a minimum, temporarily halted the downward spiral of EU-China relations in the past few years. That hope has been shattered.

China’s position on the Russian invasion

For the Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping, everything – including the war – is currently refracted through the lens of domestic politics and the global rivalry with the US. And, for now, Moscow remains Beijing’s most important partner in that dynamic. It has become clear over the past few weeks that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s failure to mastermind a quick military success does not deter Chinese leaders from their generally supportive stance. It seems highly unlikely that China will abandon Russia diplomatically or economically – despite the costs this will have for its relationship with Europe.

This is reflected in the narrative on the war promoted by China’s state media outlets. After a patchy start, the messaging for both domestic and international consumption is now straightforward: Russia has legitimate security interests, the US is trying to stoke tensions to maintain its global influence, and NATO is a cold war relic that is primarily responsible for the escalation.

Chinese leaders may neither have expected nor wanted Putin’s so-called “special military operation” to become an all-out war involving widespread destruction and mass atrocities. But, while it is in China’s interests to maintain and even enhance its trade and economic relationship with the EU, the sides have different – and even incompatible – goals for the outcome of the war.

What China wants

There would be some benefits for China in a lengthy war of attrition that distracted the US and the EU. This would buy Beijing time to create a narrative and a coalition that opposed Western sanctions. Chinese diplomats and state media outlets have already begun to criticise the “reckless” US approach to energy and food security as predominantly a threat to the lives of people in the global south.

Meanwhile, a protracted conflict would be deeply undesirable for the US, the EU, and their allies. This would slowly chip away at the credibility of the Western coalition, testing its commitment to democracy, human rights, and other liberal values in its support for Ukraine – particularly as the economic and security costs of the war rose.

Yet Beijing could also benefit in other scenarios. For instance, a negotiated ceasefire after significant Russian losses on the battlefield could leave the Putin regime weaker, less influential in regions of Chinese interest – from Central Asia to the Arctic – and more dependent on Chinese support and goodwill than it was before the war.

There would be some benefits for China in a lengthy war of attrition that distracted the US and the EU

Any such negotiations would test the cohesion of the coalition of countries that support Ukraine. They would expose fault lines between these states’ positions on issues such as energy sanctions, whether Ukraine should sacrifice any of its territory, and whether Ukraine should declare its neutrality. All too many people in Europe would jump at the opportunity to declare an end to the fighting and thereby pressure Ukraine to accept its losses. China could exploit this to counter the emerging narrative about the ‘return of the West’.

But there is one thing that Beijing certainly does not want: a crushing defeat of Russia at the hands of a Ukrainian army that received massive military support from the US and its allies. This would be a victory for a comparatively small nation bravely fighting for its sovereignty and democracy – a daunting reference point for a Taiwan contingency. Worse still for Beijing would be if this combined with an ever-tightening net of sanctions that caused serious domestic instability in Russia, threatening Putin’s grip on power. That scenario could even jeopardise the cohesion of the Russian state by, for instance, fuelling separatist movements in the Russian far east. Moreover, it would be particularly undesirable for China if countries such as India or South Africa reached a point at which they were willing to condemn Russian atrocities more forcefully and joined – even if only partially – a Western-led sanctions regime. China could then find it harder and much more costly to stand by Russia.

Therefore, a bad peace could be worse than a limited war. To avoid the former, the Chinese leadership may escalate its response from merely amplifying Russia’s propaganda and disinformation to providing the country with limited economic support. Beijing could engage in more drastic measures, including the open evasion of Western sanctions on, or even military assistance for, Russia. The EU should prepare for this eventuality.

How the EU can respond

Europeans need to define what forms of Chinese support for Moscow they will tolerate and develop a contingency plan in case Beijing crosses these red lines. They should not set these red lines around military support only. Any arms deliveries would certainly be of high political value for Moscow as a sign of the “no limits” support that Beijing signed on to in early February, but would likely change little about the realities on the battlefield. China’s diplomatic and economic support weighs much more heavily – and the EU should treat it as such.

But, even more importantly, the union also needs to take the initiative by shaping the global environment in which Chinese policymaking and narrative-building take place. This would require Europeans to significantly broaden their focus beyond the war in Ukraine.

Alongside EU member states’ economic, military, and humanitarian support for Ukraine, they will have to help sustain the Western-led coalition of major economies. To counter the Chinese narrative that the West sees the global south as an acceptable casualty of its economic war against Russia, the EU will need to address global challenges such as rising food prices, the green transition, and energy partnerships.

Luckily, the union already has some mechanisms for doing just – at least in theory. The EU’s Global Gateway initiative provides a vision for its new global infrastructure and connectivity agenda; its Indo-Pacific Strategy clearly lays out plans to strengthen EU relations in Asia beyond China and improve the resilience of supply chains and production capacities; and the European Green Deal creates a basis for reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, emphasising alliances and partnerships.

The EU will need to bring all its initiatives together to achieve a coherent approach to China. In close coordination with members states’ efforts, Brussels should begin the process at once, and should frame it as a crucial part of its response to the new global reality that will emerge due to the war in Ukraine. Systemic rivalry with China is here to stay.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Asia programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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