Even as U.S. Beckons, European Leaders Head to Beijing

China is trying to improve relations with the European Union just as the United States is pushing the bloc to pick sides.

BRUSSELS — Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, went in November. Charles Michel of the European Council in December. Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, is visiting this week. Next week it’s France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, together with the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen.

European leaders have been making a beeline to Beijing, weighing their strategy toward China just as the United States intensifies pressure to pick sides in the growing acrimony between the two superpowers.

The flurry of diplomatic activity coincides with China’s announcement of “unlimited partnership” with Russia and Beijing’s awkward effort to mediate the war in Ukraine. China’s growing closeness to Moscow has placed Europe in a difficult spot.

On the one hand, the war in Ukraine has brought deep alignment between the European Union and the United States, which have stood united in opposition to Russia’s invasion. On the other, China is a key trading and investment partner that major European powers, especially Germany, cannot afford to alienate.

At the same time, Western European countries like Germany, France and Spain, while supporting Ukraine, would like a more rapid diplomatic conclusion to the war. They see China as a possible restraint on Russia and a voice Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s president, must listen to. And they remain hopeful that China, if not a neutral mediator, could play an important role to guarantee any eventual settlement.

Europe’s bind has induced no shortage of magical thinking. “It’s interesting to see the level of panic on the side of the Europeans and their slightly delusional approach,” said Janka Oertel, the director for Asia for the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

She noted that China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has just been to Moscow and reconfirmed his partnership with Mr. Putin and their joint desire to create a new world order. Now, she said, “to go to Beijing and say, ‘We go to get China to contribute to peace’ is extraordinary.”

Europe should warn China of severe consequences if it supplies Russia with military equipment and ammunition, Ms. Oertel said.

What the visits to Beijing achieve instead, she said, is to send an important signal to Washington: “It tells the Americans that we care about that relationship with China.”

Some of the recent and scheduled visits to Beijing by European leaders were originally conceived as economically focused and postponed because of the pandemic, but Mr. Xi’s new coziness with Mr. Putin in the midst of the standoff over Ukraine has shifted the topic of conversation, and the world’s attention.

China would like nothing more than to divide Europe from the United States, and is eager to stress that a better footing would not only be good for business, but also benefit Europe’s quest for “strategic autonomy” — maintaining its independence of action, even from the United States.

Some of the European visits to Beijing were originally meant to focus on the economy, but with President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow, the topic of conversation will undoubtedly shift to Ukraine.Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Washington, for its part, would like the Europeans more firmly on its side and for the newly enhanced trans-Atlantic relationship, described by E.U. diplomats as the best it has been in decades, to include clearer alignment against China.

European countries, which do not see China as a peer rival but as an increasingly troubling trading partner, would prefer that the Americans stop pushing them to adopt a tougher stance against Beijing.

Diplomats said that in meetings with the U.S. authorities, for example, American policymakers have described the close coordination of E.U.-U.S. sanctions against Russia as a blueprint for possible future sanctions against China, should there be a military move against Taiwan.

That kind of talk, the diplomats said, has unsettled European governments, which view their interests best served by not picking sides between Washington and Beijing, especially not so early in what is becoming a superpower standoff.

The Chinese government, meanwhile, argues that the United States does not have Europe’s best interests at heart when it comes to Ukraine.

Last month at the Munich Security Conference, Wang Yi, China’s newly appointed foreign-policy chief, sharply criticized the United States, appealing to Europeans to act on their own.

“We need to think calmly, especially our friends in Europe, about what efforts should be made to stop the warfare; what framework should there be to bring lasting peace to Europe; what role should Europe play to manifest its strategic autonomy,” he said.

He suggested that Washington wanted the war to weaken Russia. “Some forces might not want to see peace talks to materialize,” he said. “They don’t care about the life and death of Ukrainians or the harm on Europe. They might have strategic goals larger than Ukraine itself.”

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia at a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow this month.Sergey Karpuhin/Sputnik, via Shutterstock

China has been engaged in a renewed charm offensive in Brussels, with the newly appointed ambassador Fu Cong, who took office in December, speaking warmly of China and the European Union as “two major forces upholding world peace, two big markets promoting shared development, and two great civilizations promoting human progress.”

The Chinese government has also been trying to resurrect a major trade deal with Brussels, the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, that was nearly completed five years ago to American annoyance, announced just days before President Biden took office and despite his team’s warnings to wait. But the deal has since stalled.

Resurrecting the deal seems unlikely, said Reinhard Bütikofer, one of five members of the European Parliament sanctioned by Beijing for their critical views of China after the Parliament imposed sanctions on China over the harsh treatment of Uighurs, a Muslim minority native to Xinjiang. China has been accused of crimes against humanity, which it denies, and put thousands of Uighurs into what it calls re-education camps.

E.U. diplomats said that Mr. Fu recently suggested in private meetings that China might unilaterally lift those sanctions if Brussels would then move to complete the investment agreement, but consensus among officials is that such a move would be nearly impossible.

Some member states have criticized the string of European leaders’ visits to Beijing, with Latvia’s prime minister, Krisjanis Karins, saying it allowed China to “divide and rule.”

But Mr. Macron on Friday defended his trip with Ms. von der Leyen. Speaking to reporters after an E.U. summit, he said he would “coordinate” with E.U. partners. “We have a European common view to engage China to the maximum,” he said, adding that the European Union spoke with a “united voice.”

A united voice on China, however, is conspicuously absent.

Fu Cong, head of the Chinese mission to the European Union, spoke of the pair as “two major forces upholding world peace, two big markets promoting shared development, and two great civilizations promoting human progress.”Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

Ms. von der Leyen, for example, who heads up the E.U. executive branch and has worked closely with the Biden administration to draft sanctions against Russia and align policy, is seen as a China hawk. Besides the importance of trade with China, Mr. Macron is interested in a more rapid diplomatic end to the Ukraine war and has called on China to help.

Ultimately, the string of E.U. visits to Beijing may yield little in either direction. Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels, noted that the visits are predominantly economic in nature.

But, she said, the visits by E.U. leaders to Beijing could benefit the Chinese government, too. In particular the addition of Ms. von der Leyen to Mr. Macron’s trip next week adds a European dimension, and the Chinese government might use her presence to show that Europe is coming around to the idea of Beijing as a potential mediator in Ukraine.

In general, Europe sees China’s vague peace proposals as pro-Russian and not a real basis for negotiations. But China matters so much economically that framing these trips as less trade than about the war, she said, is a form of “peacewashing.”

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