On the eve of a major European Union diplomatic foray into China, the bloc's foreign policy chief on Tuesday lashed out at Beijing for its support of Russia amid the invasion of Ukraine, and called it "a blatant violation" of its United Nations commitments.
"There cannot be siding with the aggressor," Josep Borrell said ahead of a trip to Beijing by the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron. "There is a clear expectation from a permanent member of the (U.N.) Security Council to stand up in defense of international rules-based order and China as a moral duty to contribute to a fair peace."
Standing alongside visiting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Borrell was unusually blunt in his condemnation of a nation that has increasingly moved from being an EU partner to being a rival on the global stage.
The comments set the stage for two of Europe's pre-eminent leaders to press the point that EU-China relations will pivot on Beijing's friendship with Russia.
Macron and von der Leyen are expected to warn China against sending weapons to Russia during talks with President Xi Jinping on Thursday. Just ahead of the visit, von der Leyen had a phone call with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to coordinate strategy.
Even if Beijing says it is neutral in the war, Xi's visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow two weeks ago had all the visuals and speeches of a meeting among trusted friends.
"They agreed on the need to not deploy nuclear arms abroad," Borrell said of the Moscow meeting. "Some days later, Russia deployed tactical weapons, nuclear tactical weapons in Belarus," he added, referring to an announcement by Putin of plans to deploy such weapons. "This comes, ironically, after Chinese President Xi visited Moscow and mentioned the need for peace."
He called the prospect of deploying such weapons in Belarus Putin's "newest nuclear gamble" and said it constituted "a direct threat to European security."
Borrell said he was looking for a change of heart in Beijing if relations were not to deteriorate.
"We have been clear with China that its position on Russia's atrocities and war crimes will determine the quality of our relations with Beijing," he said.
Discussions between Macron, Xi and von der Leyen will mainly focus on trade, the war in Ukraine and climate change.
The European officials are expected to underscore the importance of China's role in supporting peace, and to tell Xi that he should engage directly with Zelenskyy following his visit to Moscow last month. They will also urge him to put pressure on Putin to stop threatening nuclear weapons use in the war against Ukraine.
Von der Leyen will ask Xi to use his influence to make sure a grain export deal that has helped bring down global food prices can be extended beyond mid-May, when it's expected to expire after Russia's U.N. ambassador reiterated that Moscow is ready to extend the deal - but only for 60 days, just half the 120 days in the agreement.
The EU does not expect a significant change in China's position but believes it's crucial to keep engaging with the superpower, notably on trade issues.
In 2022, China was the EU's third largest partner in exports of goods and the largest partner for EU imports. EU leaders want to rebalance their commercial relationship while also addressing the 27-nation bloc's dependence to China in strategic sectors such as critical raw materials, computing-related technologies, semi-conductors and clean technologies.
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