European Union and Chinese leaders have met for their first summit in two years with Brussels pressing Beijing for assurances that it will neither supply Russia with arms nor help Moscow circumvent Western sanctions imposed over its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
In uncommonly open language, EU officials close to Friday’s summit preparations said any help given to Russia would damage China’s international reputation and jeopardise relations with its biggest trade partners – Europe and the United States.
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The presidents of the European Commission and European Council, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, along with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, began virtual talks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
They were due later on Friday to speak with President Xi Jinping.
An EU official said China’s stance towards Russia was the “million-dollar question” on Friday.
Another pointed out that more than a quarter of China’s global trade was with the bloc and the United States last year, against just 2.4 percent with Russia.
“Do we prolong this war or do we work together to end this war? That is the essential question for the summit,” the official said.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated China’s call for peace talks this week, adding the legitimate concerns of all sides should be accommodated.
Wang Yiwei, an expert on Europe at Beijing’s Renmin University, said both China and the EU wanted the war to end.
“I imagine China would want to use this summit to discuss with the EU how to create the conditions acceptable to Putin for him to climb down from his current position,” he said.
China itself has concerns that European countries are taking harder-line foreign policy cues from the United States and has called for the EU to “exclude external interference” from its relations with China.
Relations were already strained before the Ukraine war.
The EU abruptly switched in 2019 from soft diplomatic language to call China a systemic rival, but sees it as a potential partner in fighting climate change and the pandemic.
Brussels and Beijing concluded an investment agreement at the end of 2020, designed to settle some EU concerns about reciprocal market access.
However, it is now on hold after Brussels’ sanctions against Chinese officials over alleged human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region prompted Beijing to blacklist EU individuals and entities.
China has since also suspended imports from Lithuania after the Baltic EU nation allowed Taiwan to open a de facto embassy in its capital, angering Beijing which regards the democratically ruled island as its own territory.