Beijing, in urgent need of reviving its economy, wants to mend ties with Europe but is struggling to create distance between itself and Moscow.
China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, has been on a high-stakes tour of Europe, defending his country’s interests in a clash with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and reaffirming Beijing’s friendship with Russia with a visit to Moscow.
But China is also trying to woo European nations in an urgent bid to revive its economy and to find common ground with some of Washington’s staunchest allies in the region.
Mr. Wang promised the leaders of France and Germany that Beijing wanted to “fully restart exchanges” and increase cooperation on issues like climate change and free trade. He met with his Ukrainian counterpart, pledging to him that “China does not want to see the crisis being prolonged and escalated.”
After meeting with Mr. Wang in Moscow on Tuesday, President Vladimir V. Putin’s top security aide said Russia backed China on a range of issues.
“I want to reaffirm our invariable support for Beijing on the Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong issues, which the West is exploiting to discredit China,” the aide, Nikolai P. Patrushev, told Mr. Wang, the Interfax news agency reported.
In a further assertion of the countries’ close ties, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, is expected to pay a state visit to Moscow in the spring.
Mr. Wang’s travels highlight the conundrum China faces as it tries to enhance its relationship with the European Union, its largest trading partner, without alienating Russia, the only other major power alongside China challenging American global dominance. His trip also has laid bare the constraints of Beijing’s balancing act — serving as Moscow’s strategic lifeline and also professing to be a neutral bystander in a war raging on Western Europe’s doorstep.
China’s charm offensive has largely been overshadowed by U.S. accusations that China may be considering supplying Russia’s beleaguered military with weapons and ammunition. Forced on the back foot, Mr. Wang, a seasoned diplomat known for his sharp suits and wispy eyebrows, had to provide reassurances and serve as a target for rebukes and warnings.
“I had a conversation with him, and I expressed our strong concern about China providing arms to Russia and asked him not to do that,” Josep Borrell Fontelles, the top European Union diplomat, told reporters on Monday. “For us, it would be a red line in our relationship.”
As Europe and the United States, again, pressure Beijing not to aid Russia’s war, China has few options for responding. Even as it privately tries to soothe concerns, in public it has sought to look firm.
The State of the War
- Biden Visits Kyiv: President Biden traveled covertly to the besieged Ukrainian capital, hoping to demonstrate American resolve and boost shellshocked Ukrainians. But the trip was also the first of several direct challenges to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
- Portending a Global Rift: Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said that China is strongly considering giving military aid to Russia, a move that would transform the war into a struggle involving three superpowers.
- A Russian Mole in Germany?: A director at Germany’s spy service was arrested on suspicion of passing intelligence to Russia. German officials and allies worry just how deep the problem goes.
“It’s the U.S., and not China, that has been incessantly supplying weapons to the battlefield, and the U.S. is not qualified to issue any orders to China,” a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Monday.
China’s fiery rhetoric defending its ties with Russia will do little to reassure European officials. China has parroted Russian talking points in the past about how the expansion of NATO warranted the invasion of Ukraine.
After nearly two years of frosty relations marked by sanctions, the collapse of a major investment deal and a grueling war in Ukraine, European leaders were hoping to hear China moderate its tone and demonstrate a willingness to create more distance between itself and Moscow, analysts said.
Instead, Mr. Wang arrived at a security conference in Munich, and sharply ramped up a war of words with the United States over a spy balloon incident, describing Washington’s response as “absurd and hysterical.” Mr. Wang also declined to rule out a military confrontation over Taiwan — the self-governing island that Beijing claims as its territory.
“China’s charm offensive with Europe hit a wall in Munich,” said Noah Barkin, a specialist on Chinese-European relations from the Rhodium Group, a research consultancy.
“At a conference celebrating trans-Atlantic unity on Ukraine, Wang chose to blame the United States for all evils,” he added. “It was an epic misreading of the room.”
His wider strategy, analysts said, was designed to appeal to Europe’s sense of autonomy. The aim was to depict the United States’ efforts to impose restrictions on trade with China and rally military support for Ukraine’s defense as dragging the region toward a new cold war.
Europe has resisted moving in lock step with the United States, declining to blacklist Chinese companies on national security grounds. Huawei, for example, still has a large presence in Germany’s telecommunications market. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, speaking at an economic forum in January, said Europe needs to focus on “de-risking, rather than decoupling” with China.
Analysts say China was likely hoping to win support from Europe’s business community — which has been clamoring to re-enter the Chinese market — and tap into fears about the direction of the conflict in Ukraine, which will mark its first anniversary on Friday.
“China is making the argument that the war cannot be won, and Europe is becoming the victim of U.S. security strategy,” said Yun Sun, the director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based research institute.
Mr. Wang’s trip, which took him to France, Italy, Germany, Hungary and Russia, came after years of strained relations between Europe and China.
The two sides have clashed over Beijing’s crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong starting in 2019, and the European Union’s decision in 2021 to impose sanctions on Chinese officials over the mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, a far western Chinese region. China retaliated with sanctions on prominent European critics of Beijing.
Those tensions derailed a major economic deal between China and the European Union that would have given European companies in China greater legal protections and larger market access. The deal was agreed to in principle in 2020 but never signed.
China has been so eager to revive the trade agreement with Europe that its ambassador to the European Union, Fu Cong, suggested earlier this month that the two sides simultaneously lift their respective sanctions. But tensions over issues such as the treatment of Uyghurs still permeate the relationship: European lawmakers and activists protested a planned trip by the governor of Xinjiang to Europe, forcing China to call it off.
Analysts said it was no accident that Mr. Wang skipped Brussels, where the European Union — which has led the pushback against Beijing — is headquartered. With the exception of Munich, Mr. Wang’s itinerary was free of controversy. His meetings in France and Italy involved two countries whose leaders were laying the groundwork to visit Beijing. And Hungary is widely regarded as China’s closest friend in the European Union.
Mr. Barkin said the signal Mr. Wang’s chosen destinations aimed to send was that “China has partners in Europe at a time when it is under pressure on many fronts.”
But Beijing has little incentive to do so. Russia’s war in Ukraine is diverting Western resources and attention away from Asia, where Beijing is trying to establish its dominance. And, most crucially, a China aligned with Russia would be a far more daunting adversary to the United States should the world’s two superpowers ever come to blows.
Still, analysts say China could downplay Mr. Xi’s visit to Moscow to prevent ties with the West from deteriorating further. Mr. Xi could also visit Western European capitals first, and even hold a call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.
Much of that could depend on how much traction, if any, China receives by serving as a peace broker. Mr. Wang has hinted that Beijing would present a settlement plan for the war in Ukraine soon.
Skepticism abounds about any such plan, namely because European officials don’t believe Beijing has the ability, or intention, to persuade Moscow to withdraw all its troops from Ukraine, which some leaders consider a prerequisite for any peace deal.
“China is good at calling for dialogues,” said Ms. Sun. “That’s cheap and easy. The hard part is what the settlement looks like and how to convince parties to accept it and implement it. That requires knowledge, impartiality and actual use of influence. China will not touch it with a 10-foot pole.”
Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Brussels and Munich, Erika Solomon contributed reporting from Munich and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Tbilisi, Georgia. Olivia Wang contributed research from Hong Kong.