June 23. 2024. 1:49

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Macron, von der Leyen unlikely to sway China on Ukraine

China’s President Xi Jinping expressed willingness to speak to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy but is unlikely to shift his policy towards Moscow after French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called on Beijing to talk sense to Russia over the war in Ukraine.

In closely watched talks, von der Leyen and Macron met with Xi for a trilateral meeting in Beijing.

Ahead of the three-way discussions, Macron said the West must engage China to help end the war and prevent “spiralling” tensions that could split global powers into warring blocs.

“I know I can count on you to bring Russia to its senses and everyone to the negotiating table,” the French leader told Xi during a bilateral meeting in Beijing on Thursday morning.

Xi, who over the past months has sought to position his country as a potential mediator between Russia and Ukraine but has been seen by the West as favouring Moscow, responded by saying he hoped both sides could hold peace negotiations as soon as possible.

Von der Leyen and Macron face diplomatic balancing act in China

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron seek to represent a united European front during the trip to China on Wednesday (5 April), while Europe struggles to define its relations with Beijing between ‘de-risking’ economic dependencies and broaching thorny issues like Ukraine.

“It was interesting to hear that President Xi reiterated his willingness to speak [to Zelenskyy],” Von der Leyen said, adding that Xi said a conversation could happen when the “conditions and time are right”.

Xi did not mention a possible conversation with Zelenskyy in his own comments after the talks, nor did the official government readout of the meeting mention Ukraine by name.

Zelenskyy has repeatedly asked Xi to meet him, including after Xi visited Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Moscow last month, which has been viewed as a rather amicable encounter.

Weapons warning

Speaking to the press after the meeting, von der Leyen said China, as a permanent member of the United Nations’ Security Council, “has a big responsibility to use its influence in a friendship that is built on decades with Russia”.

“We count on China to really exert also this responsibility and to be very clear in the messaging,” the Commission president said

She also said she particularly warned China’s leader Xi Jinping not to send weapons to Russia, or it would “significantly” affect his country’s ties with the EU.

“We […] count on China not to provide any military equipment, directly or indirectly, to Russia, because we all know arming the aggressor would be against international law,” von der Leyen told reporters in Beijing after her meeting with Xi.

China has not crossed any red lines for us yet, EU’s top diplomat says

China has not crossed any red lines in terms of supplying arms to Russia and wants to “minimise the risk of being associated with Russian military activities”, the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told several European media, including EURACTIV.

“This would indeed significantly harm the relationship between the European Union and China,” she added.

A French diplomatic source said in his bilateral meeting that Macron had also urged Xi not to provide weapons to Russia, and that Xi had replied that it was not his war.

Both European leaders’ messaging created an image of a united front in Ukraine. However, it remains unclear whether Beijing has offered any assurances of using its leverage to influence Russia.

China has not yet crossed any red lines in terms of supplying arms to Russia and wants to “minimise the risk of being associated with Russian military activities”, the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told EURACTIV last month.

Define de-risking

The visit of the European leaders to China comes after years of souring relations with Beijing over issues including accusations of rights abuses in Xinjiang, a frozen trade and investment pact and China’s reluctance to condemn Russia over its Ukraine war.

Von der Leyen wants ‘de-risking’ not ‘de-coupling’ in new China doctrine

It is not in Europe’s interest to decouple itself fully from China and the bloc should instead look into diplomatic and economic ‘de-risking’ instead, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday (30 March).

But addressing the press after his arrival on Wednesday, Macron said Europe must resist reducing trade and diplomatic ties with China and reject what some have cast as an “inescapable spiral” of tension between China and the West.

While in China, the French delegations signed more than 20 business deals, indicating Paris had no interest in scaling down its economic ties with Beijing.

Von der Leyen, who also met Premier Li the same day, took a sterner tone in comments after her meetings than the French leaders.

Just days before their visit, she said Europe must “de-risk” diplomatically and economically facing a more assertive China.

“I conveyed that European Union businesses in China are concerned by unfair practices in some sectors under practices that impede their access to the Chinese market,” von der Leyen told reporters.

The European Commission boss also confirmed her previous statements as to which the EU wanted to “reassess” a long-negotiated investment pact with China, even if it was not directly discussed with the Chinese side.

“We started negotiations 10 years ago and concluded two years ago, a lot has happened since then […] we have seen during that time further deterioration in market access for EU companies in China,” she said.

Xinjiang and Taiwan looming

Apart from Ukraine, von der Leyen also raised the sensitive issues of human rights abuses and Taiwan in the meeting.

Rights groups have accused Beijing of abuses against Uyghurs, a mainly Muslim ethnic minority that numbers around 10 million in Xinjiang, including the mass use of forced labour in internment camps.

“I expressed our deep concerns about the deterioration of the human rights situation in China,” she said – in what was, for foreign leader, rare clear wording – adding that the situation in Xinjiang would be “particularly concerning”.

On Taiwan, she said she told Xi that “the threat to use force to change the status quo is unacceptable. It is important that some of the tensions that might occur should be resolved through dialogue”.

“Stability in the Taiwan Strait is of paramount importance,” von der Leyen said. “Nobody should unilaterally change the status quo by force in this region. The threat [of] the use of force to change the status quo is unacceptable.”

Xi, in return, warned of interference in Taiwan affairs.

“The Taiwan issue is at the centre of the core interests of China,” Xi said.

“If anyone wants to make a fuss about ‘one China’, the Chinese government and people will never agree. If anyone counts on China to make concessions […] over Taiwan, that’s an illusion,” he added.