Beijing blames the US-led NATO for being the ultimate reason why Russia launched its invasion against Ukraine. Consequently, sanctions are seen as the US forcing its hand on the Europeans. The Chinese leadership appears to be calculating that by holding the US responsible for the war, it can drive a wedge through the transatlantic alliance and portray Europeans as simple puppets of US hegemony.
This thinking is in line with how Beijing sees the multipolar world of the future: an empowered China will dominate the Indo-Pacific and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries, using increasingly decoupled supply chains and Yuan-based trade which together will make China more resilient and less dependent on the West. The US will be pushed across the seas into relative isolation, and its global importance will decrease. Meanwhile, the EU will become the third global pole, with strong economic ambitions but a diminished appetite for pushing its values – especially when it comes to challenging China.
While the unified European response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might have taken Beijing temporarily by surprise, Beijing does not think that Europe’s – often quarrelsome – unity will be long-lasting.
As part of its balancing act, China is trying to distance itself from the war in Europe, stressing that it is a regional matter forced on Europe by the US. In return for China not getting involved in this European problem, it hopes the EU will – reciprocally – stay out of the Indo-Pacific and stop supporting the US in the region. This has been a crucial part of Beijing’s messaging lately: ‘[China] guards against the introduction of bloc confrontation into the region by the United States’.
Beijing has never taken the EU seriously as an organisation, preferring to deal separately with each member state in order to further fragment the equilibrium on the continent. China has tried to disrupt European unity in the past, and continues to use the same tools – for example, it recently sent two senior diplomats on a damage-control tour of Eastern Europe. The charm offensive indicated Beijing’s ignorance of the shock the war has caused in Europe, particularly in Eastern European countries – some of which share borders with Russia. During the EU–China Summit on 1 April, the Chinese side’s reluctance to talk about Ukraine reflected how poorly Beijing understands the seriousness of the situation in Europe. [Continue reading…]