power of china | Diplomacy | East Asia
2021 has been a difficult year for Sino-European relations. 2022 looks even worse.
Although warned, many were shocked when Russia moved its troops into Ukraine. While it is difficult to predict how it will end, this ongoing war will undoubtedly have far-reaching consequences for the global political landscape and great power relations. Sino-European relations are no exception.
There is no doubt that neither Europe nor China want to see war happen. The EU and some of its members, in particular France and Germany, have deployed all their nerves to seek diplomatic solutions to the crisis. French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and their diplomatic teams traveled between Moscow and Kyiv to try to bring Russian Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelensky to the negotiating table. After all these efforts proved futile, the EU condemned the invasion and imposed sanctions on Russia, including Putin himself; airspace blocked to Russian flights; and excluded Russian banks from the SWIFT system. France increased its military presence in Eastern Europe and offered more aid to Ukraine, while Germany eventually backtracked, helping Ukraine with lethal weapons. It is understandable that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have expressed the strongest opposition and concern to Russia’s aggression, and expect the toughest sanctions against the Kremlin.
China doesn’t want to see war either. It’s not just because Beijing just hosted the Winter Olympics and is set to host the Paralympic Winter Games, but also because China is concerned about the potential disruption of its initiative. Belt and Road, which aims to connect Asia with Africa and Europe by land. and maritime networks. Prior to Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine, China had urged both sides to resolve the dispute peacefully. Beijing has tried to keep its distance from the crisis: it has not fueled tensions, nor has China hindered Russia’s military action.
Putin traveled to Beijing on February 4 to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics. During the nine-hour visit, he and President Xi Jinping signed 15 protocols and memoranda of understanding, and jointly declared that they both oppose further NATO expansion and that their friendship will not has no limits. This easily made people wonder if Beijing and Moscow had made some sort of deal for the war. After Russia launched the “special military operation” in Ukraine, China refrained from defining it as an “invasion”, instead repeatedly stressing that Russia’s security concerns must be respected.
It should be noted that all these events are taking place against the backdrop of already strained Sino-European relations. Sino-European relations have just gone through perhaps the most difficult year since 1989. In 2021, their relations fell to a new low due to mutual sanctions, Lithuania’s withdrawal from the “17+1” mechanism and the creation of a “Taiwan representative office”. in Vilnius, which crossed China’s “red line”. Prior to that, China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic had pushed negative public opinions about Beijing to historic heights across Europe. Now, China’s stance on the Russian-Ukrainian war will only further damage its image and spur already unfavorable public opinion across Europe.
China has always been aware that siding with Russia is unwise, especially in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), a region once oppressed by the Russians. In the face of Ukraine’s invasion, even the most pro-Kremlin politicians in the CEE countries have turned to condemning Russia. China’s lukewarm statements and bystander role clearly cannot satisfy CEE governments and publics. Beijing should not be surprised if more of them announce their withdrawal from the “17+1” mechanism, China’s platform for cooperation with the CEE countries, and look to Taiwan for closer ties this year.
China asserts that it is a responsible great power and strives to promote world peace and development; however, in the face of aggression, he tried to remain detached. European leaders now have reason to doubt China’s ability to meet difficult international challenges and the credibility of its commitments. Of course, losing credibility in favor of other gains is nothing new in international politics, including in Europe; the decision of the United States and the United Kingdom to join forces with Australia to replace France’s submarine agreement can serve as an example. But with China-EU relations already facing such serious challenges, any additional challenges will undermine the already precarious trust and complicate efforts to improve bilateral relations.
The Sino-European relationship is now put to the test by the Russian-Ukrainian war. For China, if it prepares to play a bigger role in ending the war and bringing peace to Europe, Beijing could diplomatically benefit from the crisis. However, if China continues to blur its position and just watch from the sidelines, Beijing will surely reap brotherly friendship from the Russians, but it will also encounter more wary and hostile gazes from Europe.