The presidents of France and Spain are traveling to Beijing soon. What is at stake in this delicate and sometimes ambiguous link.
Something moves between China and Europe. The trip of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Moscow and the next ones to Beijing by the Spanish Pedro Sánchez, the French Emmanuel Macron, the head of the European Commission Úrsula Von der Leyen and the chancellor of the bloc Josep Borrell, show that without fully accepting the plan of Chinese peace for Ukraine, the Europeans want to maneuver so that the Asian country does not take the step of sending arms to Russia.
China wants to mediate, is uncomfortable with the war and managed to keep Europe from rejecting its peace plan outright even though it is clearly leaning towards Moscow’s position. And the Europeans are hesitant because they are divided between those who want to maintain an independent relationship with China and those who prefer to align fully with the United States.
The summit this Thursday and Friday was the forum to discuss these relations after years without doing so, a debate on geopolitics that could mark European foreign policy in the coming years and the future of the war in Ukraine in the medium term.
Chinese President Xi Jinping in December before a summit with European Council President Charles Michel in Beijing. Photo: REUTERS
Enemy or “strategic rival”?
What is China for Europe? Official European documents from before the pandemic say it is a “strategic rival.”
It is not an enemy as it could be for the United States, but that rivalry is recognized.
What role should Europe play in a time of growing confrontation between China and the United States? The largest European countries (Germany, Spain, France, Italy) prefer to maintain a certain degree of independence from Washington.
If the United States is undoubtedly the preferential ally and no European Foreign Ministry doubts this (except for the usual outbursts of Hungarian diplomacy), China can be a partner in some essential issues such as international trade or the fight against the climate crisis.
Other governments among the 27 believe that the war in Ukraine changes the paradigm and that the world is heading towards a division into blocs in which the European Union must be on the same line as Washington. They are governments like the Baltic or the Polish. In part also the Dutch and the Scandinavians, although they are not closed to Europe talking to China on their own.
The debate between the 27, says a diplomatic source, has basic agreements. China wants allies to counteract the Western powers and that is what Russia is for. The EU invited the Secretary General of the United Nations, former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, to the summit, a man whose job is to keep alive a multilateralism that the logic of blocs calls into question.
Xi Jinping, in a video conference with the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, in April 2022. Photo: XINHUA
The 27 agree with Guterres that they prefer a world based on rules. The European Union is the largest economic and commercial bloc on the planet and everything that is world disorder hurts it. He prefers that order to a world that moves by the law of the strongest, a scenario in which he has to align himself with Washington.
What other countries and regions prefer such a world, Europeans wonder? And they look at Latin America, Southeast Asia, Oceania, certain African countries. If Russia has placed itself in the position of a military enemy through the war and there is no doubt of the fraternal relationship with the United States, the Europeans are still looking for how to relate to China, but they are not all on the same line, so the debate at this summit it was even more important to try to close ranks.
Emmanuel Macron and Pedro Sánchez go to China
While waiting for the impressions that Sánchez and Macron bring from Beijing, the others wonder if the line should be the German one (which tries by all means to maintain a commercial relationship of a size that it does not have with anyone else outside the European Union ) or if, as the German Úrsula Von der Leyen did in Washington, we should support the US ban on exporting certain technological products to Beijing. The definition of those first issues will give a direction signal.
The President of the European Council, former Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, said last week in the European Parliament that in the face of the rivalry between China and the United States for planetary leadership in the coming decades, the Europeans will not be “equidistant”.
Michel assured: “We are a solid, loyal and faithful ally of the United States.” But that is not an obstacle, continued Michel, to recognize that China is indispensable and that with the Chinese it is necessary to “dialogue”.