BEIJING – China on Friday renewed its criticism of Western sanctions against Russia, as top European Union officials sought assurances from Beijing that it would not help Moscow circumvent the economic measures imposed in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry also laid blame for the war in Ukraine at least partially on the United States for pushing to expand the NATO military alliance closer to Russia's borders. Twenty-one of the EU's 27 countries are also NATO member states.
At a virtual summit, European Council President Charles Michel, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell sought signs from Chinese President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang that Beijing would help to end the war in Ukraine.
Von der Leyen said leaders from both sides “exchanged very clearly opposing views" on many topics but expressed hopes that China would use its influence as a major power and permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to convince Russia it should put an end to the war.
She added that she expects China at least not to interfere with Western sanctions targeting Russia, even if Beijing does not endorse them.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian earlier warned at a daily briefing that his country “disapproves of solving problems through sanctions, and we are even more opposed to unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction that have no basis in international law."
Zhao said when it comes to Ukraine, Beijing would not be forced to “choose a side or adopt a simplistic friend-or-foe approach. We should, in particular, resist the Cold War thinking and bloc confrontation.”
“As the culprit and leading instigator of the Ukraine crisis, the U.S. has led NATO to engage in five rounds of eastward expansion in the last two decades after 1999," he said, adding that NATO membership almost doubled from 16 to 30 countries, and pushed "Russia to the wall step by step.”
China says it is not taking sides in the conflict but it has declared a “no limits” partnership with Russia and refuses to condemn the invasion. Beijing routinely amplifies Russian disinformation about the conflict, and does not refer to it as an invasion or a war in keeping with Russian practice.
Michel and Von der Leyen did not say whether they received guarantees from Chinese officials that Beijing would not provide financial or military aid to Russia. Von der Leyen insisted that any support to Russia's ability to wage its war would lead to “a major reputational damage for China" in Europe.
“The business sector is watching very closely the events and evaluating how countries are positioning themselves," she said. “This is a question of trust, of reliability and of course of decisions on long-term investments."
In a news release following a first summit session, Li was quoted as affirming the importance of China-EU ties, saying he hoped the two “remain open to each other, steadily expand market access, protect fair competition and promote trade and investment liberalization and facilitation.”
“China hopes that the EU will also provide a sound business environment to Chinese businesses investing and developing in Europe,” Li was quoted as saying.
The meeting took place amid rising negative sentiment within the bloc fueled by China’s aggressive foreign policies and trade practices.
Underlying the EU's expectations for China is the possibility of penalties against Chinese companies that undermine measures taken against Russia. EU officials point out that 13.7% of China’s total trade is done with the 27-nation bloc, and 12% with the United States, compared with just 2.4% with Russia.
Other topics included China’s travel ban on members of the European Parliament; Beijing’s economic boycott of EU member Lithuania over its Taiwan relations; the fate of a stalled investment agreement; and civil and political rights under China’s authoritarian Communist Party regime.
Beijing has dismissed European criticisms as biased and driven by an anti-China agenda being pursued by its chief global rival, the United States.
Beijing also sanctioned some European Union lawmakers last year after the EU, Britain, Canada and the United States launched coordinated sanctions against officials in China over human rights abuses in the far western Xinjiang region.
The European Parliament responded by saying it will not ratify a long-awaited business investment deal as long as the sanctions remain in place.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry official said Saturday that China would continue to support talks on a cease fire, but noted that China’s role should “not be overestimated.” China has little experience as a mediator and has not been asked to play such a role by the main participants.
Director General of the Department of European Affairs Wang Lutong said the EU would have to first eliminate its sanctions on Chinese officials, but said a simultaneous lifting of the measures could also be explored.
Wang also told reporters that if the U.S. were to offer Russia a pledge of no further NATO expansion and no deployment of strategic weapons in Ukraine, then “maybe the issue will get sorted."
Rights groups have also urged the EU to take a more assertive stand with China over repression in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and elsewhere and the persecution of Chinese dissidents including Sakharov Prize winner Ilham Tohti and Chinese-Swedish publisher Gui Minhai.
Highlighting some positive discussions that took place during their summit, von der Leyen said the EU and China can cooperate constructively in the fight against climate change and COVID-19.
Xi was quoted as saying that the “Ukraine crisis has come on top of a protracted COVID-19 pandemic and a faltering global recovery.”
“Against such a backdrop, China and the EU, as two major forces, big markets and great civilizations, should increase communication on their relations and on major issues concerning global peace and development, and play a constructive role in adding stabilizing factors to a turbulent world,” Xi said in a statement.
Moritsugu reported from Beijing.
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