Huge trade relationship at stake as China and EU meet to discuss Russia

BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 10: Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) adjusts his jacket as he sits beside Premier Li Keqiang at the start of closing session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the Great Hall of the People on March 10, 2022 in Beijing, China. China's week-long annual political gathering, known as the Two Sessions, convenes the nation's leaders and lawmakers to set the government's agenda for domestic economic and social development for the next year. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

China and Europe’s top leaders are set to meet on Friday, as their vast and growing trade relationship threatens to be overshadowed by differences over Russia and other geopolitical tensions.

At the virtual EU-China summit, Beijing is expected to face pressure from one of its top trading partners over the war in Ukraine, which will be the main focus of the talks, according to the European Union. Chinese President Xi Jingping and Premier Li Keqiang will also discuss business ties, human rights and climate change with European Council President Charles Michel and Ursula Von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, reported by CNN.

Europe trades more goods with China than anyone else. But in recent weeks, concerns in the West have spiked over Beijing’s refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“Senior EU officials have unsuccessfully sought to convince Beijing to push Moscow toward deescalation,” Eurasia Group experts wrote in a note Tuesday. “[They] will now seek to enlist Xi, but the feeling in Brussels is that China is not interested in pressuring Russia.”

The divergence over the Russia-Ukraine crisis stands in contrast to China and Europe’s economic ties, which have deepened during the coronavirus pandemic.

China abstained from voting on a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, troubling many in the West.

“The way in which China handles this conflict will have bearing on the future overall of the EU-China relationship,” Reinhard Butikofer, head of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China, told reporters ahead of the summit.

In a statement, EU leaders said they would focus on “the engagement of the international community to support Ukraine, the dramatic humanitarian crisis created by Russia’s aggression, its destabilizing nature for the international order and its inherent global impact.”

China has acknowledged the tension in the room, but pushed back on any assertions of wrongdoing.

“The current international situation is volatile,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a press conference Wednesday.

Beijing has already urged the United States —which, along with the European Union, has imposed tough sanctions against Moscow — not to undermine its “legitimate rights and interests,” adding that China and Russia would “continue to conduct normal economic trade cooperation.”

China has long sought to drive a wedge between the United States and European Union, with officials and state media often pointing to the importance for the bloc’s “strategic autonomy” from Washington.

Despite the pressure,China and the European Union are heavily reliant on each other for hundreds of billions of dollars in trade each year.

China overtook the United States in 2020 as Europe’s biggest trading partner for goods, with the overall value of trade reaching €588 billion ($650 billion), according to EU statistics office Eurostat.

In 2021, the trend continued: Overall China-EU trade in goods reached €695.5 billion (approximately $777 billion), compared with €631.4 billion ($704 billion) in US-EU trade.

China was the number one source of EU imports and the third largest destination of EU exports, after the United States and United Kingdom, according to Eurostat.

Europe’s trade with the world’s second largest economy has soared over the past decade. China logged some of the highest annual growth rates for both EU imports and exports from 2011 to 2021, Eurostat said in a report.

However, the European Union still considers the United States to be its biggest overall trading partner, taking into account the exchange of services and foreign investment. China ranks second in that respect, followed by the United Kingdom and Switzerland.

There is also little hope for a revival of a planned China-EU investment deal, which was previously shelved due to Beijing’s sanctions against European Parliament members over their stance on Xinjiang.

Given the current plethora of issues, that is “a non-starter” for now, said Eurasia Group analysts.


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