It may be the April Fool’s Day summit, but there are some things that Chinese President Xi Jinping and EU leaders can simply never say to each other. Even as a prank.
The stakes could hardly be higher in terms of charting out the new contours of the global order.
The big question is how closely the Chinese will stick to Russian President Vladimir Putin in his bloody assault on Ukraine. In truth, the answer is either “closely” or “very closely.” Xi has called Putin his “best friend” and EU leaders say they have “very reliable evidence” that Beijing has considered sending military support to Putin’s troops in Ukraine. China has also taken to blaming NATO for the crisis and has supported the Kremlin’s desire to rewrite the future security architecture of Europe — much against the wishes of the EU and NATO.
All eyes are now on whether Beijing will do anything to help Russia circumvent Western sanctions — and on what his two co-hosts, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, presidents of the European Commission and European Council, will do in response.
Here’s what not to expect:
“We’re sorry about our friend Vladimir. We don’t want to be in his gang any more.”
China has no blushes about its “rock-solid” relationship with Putin. Beijing has made clear that while it doesn’t want the war to go on, it’s not going to ditch the guys who started it. Far from it. In a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday, his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi said the two countries “have withstood the new test of evolving international landscape, remained on the right course and shown resilient development momentum.” An EU official, speaking before the summit, acknowledged Beijing’s wish to play “a balancing act.” “I don’t think that is likely to fundamentally change. It is in [the EU’s] interests to make sure that balance position doesn’t become one of over-support beyond the declaration,” he added.
“Let’s let bygones be bygones and thaw out the investment deal. “
Brussels hit a hard pause on an EU-China investment deal last May, stuffing the product of seven years of negotiations in the freezer amid tit-for-tat sanctions related to China’s brutal crackdown against its Muslim minority in Xinjiang. As long as members of the European Parliament are under sanctions, this is not moving an inch. No progress is expected at the summit. Diplomats said this week that China’s adherence to International Labor Organization standards are still a sticking point — not to mention the challenge of convincing MEPs to ratify an investment accord with a country that’s currently sanctioning their colleagues.
“OK, we overreacted a bit by trying to crush Lithuania. We’re cool with them now.”
China is still out to bludgeon Vilnius into submission to deliver a cautionary tale on what happens to little democracies that play nice with Taiwan. Beijing has imposed a trade embargo on Lithuania, after the Baltic nation and Taiwan deepened their diplomatic and trade ties. China sees this as a breach of the “One China” policy. The EU, which has sole competence over trade issues, took action on behalf of Lithuania against China at the World Trade Organization. Von der Leyen, as head of the Commission, is most likely going to ask China to drop the punitive measures. But don’t expect any softening from China as long as the Taiwan Representative Office remains open in Lithuania.
“Sure, come visit Wuhan any time to see our labs. Bring the family.”
Health is definitely on the menu — but don’t expect any serious debate on the origins of COVID-19. Beijing continues to bristle at efforts to get to the bottom of the coronavirus outbreak, even as the theory that it leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been largely dismissed. China last year reacted with outrage to a World Health Organization plan to audit labs, accusing the probe of “arrogance toward science.” Western leaders are calling for new international health rules that would require countries to be more transparent about an outbreak. In late February, Russia objected to such a proposal from the U.S., on sovereignty grounds.
“Maybe we can just go back to buying each other’s stuff, and forget about this new Cold War.”
The EU is in no mood to give China an easy time. Diplomats preparing for the summit say they expect the two EU leaders to spell out “very clearly” to Xi that the Russian aggression is “central” to the future of EU-China relations, and this won’t be a summit just like business as usual.
“We won’t whitewash our differences with China,” one official said. “Our citizens wouldn’t expect our two presidents to behave this way.” China may have hoped to focus more on cooperation in the summit, such as climate change. But these issues of potential common ground will all take a back seat now. Officials say von der Leyen and Michel will tell Xi “how much the population in China cherish the economic fruits with the West and have a yearning for luxury products made in Europe” — which is clearly a warning of what might follow should he “breach the current balance position and over-support Putin.”
Giorgio Leali and Ashleigh Furlong contributed reporting.
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