The EU is clearly on a diplomatic war path vis-à-vis China. In the most recent (April 1, 2022) virtual EU-China summit, the Europeans clearly told Beijing that the latter’s support for Russia in its ongoing military operation in Ukraine will have a serious cost i.e., a rupture in the EU-China economic ties. China, on the other hand, emphasised the need to treat EU-China ties separately from the crisis unleashed by the US’ irresponsible push for NATO’s eastward expansion to encircle Russia. Beijing has also emphasised that the EU needs to follow an independent foreign policy. The EU, however, has little strategic autonomy to develop an independent foreign policy in the wake of the ongoing crisis in Europe. As irony would have it, while the theatre of conflict is Eastern Europe, it is the US, rather than Russia, that has been able to inflict significant damage on the EU insofar as the latter has lost its quest for a European security architecture as a means to project itself in Europe and beyond independently. Major European nations are either investing more in their defence system tied to NATO or contemplating NATO membership. The US stands to gain everything from this shift in European thinking.
This is how the US is manipulating the EU vis-à-vis China. Two weeks ago, US intelligence ‘informed’ the EU about China’s willingness to offer military help to Russia. Although Beijing has clearly denied any involvement in the ongoing Russian operation in Ukraine, the information being fed to the EU diplomats is toxic enough to present China as a party in the conflict. For Washington, cultivating an anti-China perception in the EU not only complements its overall policy of maintaining exclusive control over the European continent, but also allows it to combine Russia and China as two so-called ‘revisionist’ states threatening the trans-Atlantic unity and interests.
Following the same line of thought, the EU asked China in the April 1 summit ‘not to help Russia.’ Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said that any Chinese attempts to “circumvent sanctions or provide aid to Russia would prolong the war.” It is obvious that the EU, toeing the US line, was not impressed by Xi’s call upon the EU to “form its own perception of China, adopt an independent China policy and work with China for the steady and sustained growth of China-EU relations.”
The US, on the other hand, sees China’s encouragement of an independent European policy as Beijing’s attempt to break the trans-Atlantic unity. As a New York Times report recently propagated, “China has regularly tried to break the European Union’s close relations with the United States, which have only been reinforced because of the war in Ukraine.” It added that “China has always been eager to divide European Union countries from the United States and even from one another.”
For the EU, therefore, China becomes an enemy state involved in a war in Europe when it processes information, or ‘tips’, provided by the US. The EU’s response, then, reflects Washington’s interests; hence, the ongoing EU-China stalemate, reflecting the stalemate existing between the US and China.
For the EU – and the US – the only way China can become more acceptable to them is if it publicly distances itself from Russia. For both the EU and the US, China’s balancing act – which involves respect for the relevant countries’ legitimate security interests and the necessity of ending the war via negotiated means – is tantamount to open support for Russia.
China, on the other hand, objects to a policy of ‘choosing sides.’ China’s statement in the UN Security Council meeting of February 25 called this policy the “cold war mentality.”
With the EU losing its autonomy to the US vis-à-vis both China and Russia, its ability to materialise its strategic interests in the best possible ways has become severely restricted.
For instance, the fact that the EU is mindlessly acting upon ‘tips’ provided by the US has prevented it from co-opting China’s help to facilitate mediation between Russia and Ukraine to end a military conflict in Europe. The EU is almost completely blind to the fact that China is one country that has deep economic ties with both Russia and Ukraine. Beijing is also a country that has more direct economic ties with the European continent – their bilateral trade volume is 2 billion USD a day – than any other country. Beijing, in other words, is very uniquely placed to be able to engage simultaneously with all parties – Russia, Ukraine and Europe – directly involved and affected by the war.
While the military conflict is restricted to Russia and Ukraine, there is no denying that Europe is being affected by it. Refugees are flowing in, and gas and oil prices are at an all-time high. Europe, therefore, needs this war to end urgently. But the fact that it lacks the mechanism i.e., an independent foreign policy, means that it cannot really take any meaningful steps to co-opt China and help mediate.
Having co-opted the “Cold War mentality”, Europe has become captive to the global geopolitics of ‘blocs’. It has narrowly placed China in the straitjacket of a Russian ally, not realising the power of Chinese stakes in Europe and how those could be positively utilised to end this conflict and/or prevent this conflict from spreading.
While this is still possible, Europe, first and foremost, needs to drop its US-centric lens of global geopolitics and appreciate the necessity of acting as a bloc in itself rather than as a junior partner in the US-led anti-Russia and anti-China bloc. The US, of course, will do everything to prevent such a paradigm shift in Europe.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.