Making the future of Sino-European relations dependent on China's position on the war in Ukraine 


"How China continues to interact with Putin's war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward." This statement by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her March 30 speech shows that, for the European Commission and presumably for the EU in general, dealing with Russia and the war in Ukraine is a bigger priority than managing the relationship with China. The EU seems to have made the future of its relationship with China dependent to a significance degree on how that country positions itself regarding the war in Ukraine. If that is the case, then it is important that the European Union is clear about what it wants China to do, and that this is viable.

According to von der Leyen, China should play a constructive role in bringing about peace on terms defined by Ukraine. Moreover, a peace settlement should include the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, and the restoration of the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, rather than provide Russia with any kind of support, China should use its influence to pressure Russia into ending the war on Ukraine's and the EU's terms. The problem is that this is not a viable target so long as China regards Russia as a vital strategic partner because of its geopolitical rivalry with the United States. For China to exert strong pressure on Moscow would seriously damage its relationship with Russia.

The Chinese government has not condemned or openly criticized the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it did indicate in its recent position paper that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of any country (which includes Ukraine) needs to be upheld. This is the paper's first point, and suggests that China disapproves of and is unlikely to formally recognize the occupation or annexation of any part of Ukrainian territory by Russia. However, the Chinese position paper includes no concrete steps to bring about a restoration of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and has therefore been rejected by the EU as irrelevant at best. China has abstained several times in votes on United Nations Security Council resolutions that demand Russia withdraw its troops. Although the fact that China did not veto these resolutions seems to signal that it does not approve of the invasion, it also did not contribute to isolating Russia diplomatically. The Chinese government so far has not provided Russia with significant military aid, but it has strengthened economic relations, thereby undermining the effectiveness of Western sanctions.

China obviously has not played the role that the EU wants it to. And yet it has kept its support for Russia within certain limits. The ability of the EU to influence China's position on the war is highly restrained. The Chinese government seems eager to preserve as much as possible China's economic and diplomatic relations with the EU, but not at the cost of losing its ability to cooperate with Russia on geopolitical issues related to the U.S. When attempting to influence China on how it deals with Russia and the war in Ukraine, the EU should take into account that the Chinese government's main foreign policy focus is on the U.S., not on Russia or the EU. The European Union should therefore choose its aims carefully. Otherwise, European-Chinese relations may soon reach a dead end, while the EU will not have come closer to achieving its targets regarding the Ukraine war. Moreover, in order to enlarge its ability to influence China-Russia relations, the EU should actively contribute to a tempering of the tensions between China and the U.S.

First published on 5 April 2023 as a ChinaFile Conversation. Republished on 6 April 2023 by Foreign Policy.

Photo: European Commission