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China's Liaisons With Russia Are Fueling an Awkward Split Among European Leaders

Xinhua News Agency | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Russia "is a little bit of an eye opener for us in Europe," Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš, the prime minister of Latvia, told CNBC on Thursday.
  • China presented last month a 12-point plan for peace between Russia and Ukraine.
  • There are doubts in western nations that China can be an effective mediator between Russia and Ukraine.

BRUSSELS — China's relationship with Russia is causing unease and division in the European Union, with some in the bloc arguing that it's time to rethink their ties to Beijing.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Russia earlier this week, where both leaders shared mutual concerns, warm words and called one another "dear friend." Speaking alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Chinese leader Xi predicted voters would reelect his Russian counterpart next year and described his leadership as "strong."

Their conversations are closely followed by officials in the U.S. and the EU, particularly in terms of potential military support that Beijing may give to Moscow, which could materially help the latter in making advancements with its war in Ukraine.

However, more broadly, the stronger ties between Moscow and Beijing are creating problems within the European Union, which has thus far looked to strengthen its own economic links with China.

There's a school of thought that the EU needs to tightly curb its relationship with Beijing — something that the United States would welcome. But some EU leaders would instead prefer to be careful with their words and actions in case they antagonize Beijing.

Xi's visit to Russia "is a little bit of an eye opener for us in Europe," Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš, the prime minister of Latvia, told CNBC on Thursday.

"If maybe many, many people were hoping that China could somehow be or take the role of a [peace] broker, China's not doing this at all. China is certainly moving right now overtly on the side of Russia. And this is actually a very big challenge and a big difficulty for all of us," he said.

Last month, China presented a 12-point plan for peace between Russia and Ukraine. The proposal fails to specify whether Russia needs to leave the territory of Ukraine for a deal to be completed. Kyiv has made it clear it will not agree to any peace deal that does not involve regaining full control of its territory, including Crimea which the Kremlin annexed in 2014.

"We have looked very carefully at [the] communication coming out of the Xi Jinping meeting with Vladimir Putin," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told CNBC. "We very much hope that the phone call will take place as soon as possible between Xi Jinping and Volodymyr Zelenskyy."

There's been speculation that the Chinese leader will now, after leaving Moscow, have his first conversation with the Ukrainian president since the invasion began in February 2022.

However, there are doubts in Western nations that China can be an effective mediator between Russia and Ukraine. When asked if he trusted Beijing to do that, Rutte said, "That's difficult to assess."

While Ukraine has previously called out Hungary and Germany for getting too close to Russia, it has kept a more amicable tone toward Beijing.

"I don't want to do China bashing just for China bashing," Luxembourg's prime minister, Xavier Bettel, told CNBC in Brussels on Thursday. He said China is a competitor to the EU, but also a partner. Indeed, in 2022, China was the third-largest destination for goods from the EU.

"It's the same for TikTok," Bettel said. "In my country TikTok is still not forbidden. I don't forbid TikTok because it's Chinese, but if I have evidence that there is something, I will ban it — but I am not in favor of doing bashing or banning without having evidences."

European institutions, Belgium and Denmark — among others — have banned the use of the Chinese-owned app on government-issued work phones with concerns over national security.

Speaking in Davos, Switzerland, in January, France's finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, said the French view was to engage with China.

"China cannot be out, China must be in. This is the difference of view we have between the U.S. and Europe," he said. "We don't want to oppose China, we want to engage with China."

Overall, the EU is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Its trade links with China are important, particularly when economic growth in the EU is vulnerable to the ongoing war in Ukraine. But at the same time, it is witnessing a closer bond between Beijing and Moscow which could be in direct conflict with the EU's aim for peace in Ukraine.

Moreover, the EU has become even more reliant on the United States for security matters since the invasion and Washington rhetoric, meanwhile, is increasingly more critical of China.

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