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EU to pressure China at virtual summit over its stance on Russia-Ukraine war, sources say

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Alexei Druzhinin | Afp | Getty Images

The European Union wants to put pressure on China to be neutral with its stance over Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, sources with knowledge of the matter told CNBC ahead of a virtual meeting between Brussels and Beijing on Friday.

There is concern among western officials regarding the role that China might play in the war between Russia and Ukraine. The Chinese authorities have so far refused to fully condemn Russia’s unprovoked invasion of its neighbor and have previously supported Moscow’s complaints about NATO expansion.

U.S. officials have also said that Russia has asked China for military and economic support — something that the Kremlin and Beijing have both denied.

European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are speaking Friday with China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang at 10 a.m. Brussels time and then with Chinese President Xi Jinping at 2 p.m.

The goal of the summit is “ensuring, in a way, the neutrality of China so they don’t help Russia,” an EU official, who did not want to be named due to the sensitivity of the discussions, told CNBC Tuesday.

The same official said that EU-China economic links and recent trade disputes might be brought up during the conversations, but “the focus is definitely on Russia.”

A second EU official, also aware of the talks, told CNBC that the summit is a “defining moment for EU-China relations.” “If they [China] align themselves with Russia that will obviously have a very negative impact on relations with the EU,” the second official said.

A third EU official, who also preferred to remain anonymous, said the summit was initially meant to announce “small initiatives.” “But things have changed,” the same official said, adding that “the key message should be that there will be consequences if China does circumvent [western] sanctions.”

Earlier this month, Estonia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Eva-Maria Liimets told CNBC that if China were to help Russia in the invasion of Ukraine then the West should discuss sanctions against Beijing too.

In addition, different heads of state in the EU urged China last week to use its influence to stop the war in Ukraine.

Speaking to CNBC last week, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi said: “China is [the] most important country, they can be crucial in the peace process, they have lots of leverage, a lot of leverage, and so we are all waiting.”

Italy’s Foreign Affairs Minister Luigi Di Maio told CNBC’s Steve Sedgwick Tuesday: “We have frequently solicited all our international partners and even those actors with whom we do not agree to achieve peace and a diplomatic solution. Even China, like Turkey and many other countries, can contribute to this effort.”

“It is very important to participate in this effort so we can collectively show [Russian President Vladimir] Putin that a diplomatic solution is a better option for him than to carry on with this war,” Di Maio added.

The EU’s relationship with China has been bumpy in recent years.

Both signed an investment deal in late 2020 — just before U.S. President Joe Biden arrived at the White House. However the EU, just a couple of months later, decided to freeze the agreement citing concerns over human rights abuses in China.

More recently, the European Commission opened a case against China at the World Trade Organization arguing discriminatory trade practices against Lithuania, an EU nation.

“Friday’s summit was meant to be an opportunity to put a year of EU-China tensions in the rearview mirror and forge new ground for cooperation. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s refusal to condemn Moscow’s attack, however, have decisively dampened European expectations of a reset,” analysts at consultancy firm Eurasia Group said in a note Tuesday.

“European disappointment with China over Ukraine coupled with the strongest transatlantic unity in more than two decades will underpin closer EU-US cooperation against Beijing going forward,” they added.

The transatlantic relationship has improved in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. After their foreign policy differences over the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 and a controversial submarine deal between the U.S. and Australia that angered France; there now seems to be more cooperation between Washington and Brussels.

They have coordinated sanctions against Russia and the U.S. is currently working on supporting the EU to become more independent from Russian energy.

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