BRUSSELS: Top European Union officials began talks Friday with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, as the 27-nation bloc seeks assurances that Beijing won’t help Russia to circumvent economic sanctions leveled over the invasion of Ukraine.
The virtual summit will also see European Council President Charles Michel, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell hold talks with Chinese President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.
Prior to the annual meeting, EU officials said they would also look for signs that Beijing is willing to cooperate on bringing an end to the war in Ukraine.
Other topics include 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.
The summit takes place amid sharply rising negative sentiment toward China within the bloc, fueled by China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policies and trade practices.
Beijing has dismissed European criticisms as biased and driven by an anti-China agenda being pursued by its chief global rival, the United States.
The war in Ukraine has thrown those differences into stark relief, with the EU rallying to the Ukrainian cause and China refusing to condemn Russia, while repeating Russian disinformation about the war and criticizing punishing economic sanctions brought against Moscow.
“We are looking for assurances that China has no intention of providing an economic lifeline or other support to Russia during this war,” an EU official told reporters Thursday, speaking on customary condition of anonymity in line with his institution’s rules.
At a daily briefing Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that when it came 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.”
He also reiterated China’s opposition to economic sanctions against Russia, saying those would “not help solve problems at all and will even create new problems.”
“China 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.
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.
Officials said they also wish to emphasize the impact the war is having on the availability of fertilizer and global energy and food prices, which are hitting the poorest countries in Africa and the Middle East hardest.
The EU also plans to raise China’s trade spat with Lithuania sparked by the Baltic state’s decision to allow Taiwan to open an unofficial representative office in its capital, Vilnius, under the name “Taiwan.” China considers the self-governing island republic part of its territory with no right to independent foreign relations and has frozen trade with Lithuania in retaliation.
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.
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.
“The EU’s foreign policy chief has pointed with alarm to the Chinese government’s ‘revisionist campaign’ against universal human rights and institutions,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch said in a news release.
“Brussels should revise its approach to match the magnitude of that threat,” Richardson said.