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Europe is nervous about a potential Trump win. China sees an opportunity

Analysis by Simone McCarthy, CNN

Hong Kong (CNN) — China’s top diplomat Wang Yi had a message for his European counterparts over the weekend: no matter how the world changes, China will be “consistent and stable” – a “force for stability.”

The claim, which Wang delivered during remarks at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, comes as European leaders are warily watching the upcoming United States elections – concerned that the potential return of former President Donald Trump could upend their partnership with Washington.

Those concerns flared in the past week after Trump said he would not defend NATO allies that failed to spend enough on defense – a stunning threat for many in Europe as Russia’s invasion grinds on in Ukraine.

The timing of Trump’s comments couldn’t have been better for Wang, who is visiting Europe as Beijing struggles to repair deteriorating relations with the bloc — an effort made more urgent by its domestic economic struggles and ongoing frictions with the US.

“No matter how the world changes, China, as a responsible major country, will keep its major principles and policies consistent and stable and serve as a staunch force for stability in a turbulent world,” Wang said during remarks in Munich, while calling for China and Europe to “stay clear of geopolitical and ideological distractions” and work together.

But while Wang’s pitch may land on receptive ears in some European capitals where leaders hope to stabilize aspects of their relations with China, Beijing also has a major issue when it comes to making real progress to repair ties, analysts say: its steadfast relationship with Moscow.

Those challenges were underscored over the weekend in Munich, where the security conference was overshadowed by shock and anger as reports emerged of the death at age 47 of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

Leaders decried his death as the work of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime – with outrage amplifying mounting concern about the fate of Ukraine, which lost key ground to Russia on Friday.

“Wang’s message to his European hosts is that geopolitical differences should not be allowed to get in the way of close cooperation,” said Noah Barkin, a visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) think tank.

“What is left unsaid is that China is not prepared to change the positions and policies that worry the Europeans most, namely its deepening relationship with Russia and its distortive trade practices.”

Russia relations

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began two years ago, Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have bolstered their countries’ relations as both face rising tensions with the West. China – which has not condemned Russia’s invasion and claims impartiality in the conflict – has also emerged as a key lifeline for the sanctions-hit Russian economy.

In Europe, this has galvanized concerns about China’s own global ambitions and played a role in the European Union’s ongoing push to recalibrate its policy toward China.

In a panel discussion in Munich on Saturday, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg drew a parallel between Russian aggression and China, saying continued American support for Ukraine would “send a message” to Xi discouraging potential use of force in Taiwan, a self-ruled island China’s ruling Communist Party claims.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell reiterated the bloc’s “expectation that China refrains from supporting Russia,” in a meeting with Wang Friday. Western governments have not accused Beijing of sending extensive aid to Russia’s military.

The EU is considering placing trade restrictions on three mainland Chinese firms as part of a proposed round of measures meant to hamper the Russian war effort, Bloomberg reported last week.

In response to a query about the report from CNN, China’s Foreign Ministry said it “firmly opposes illegal sanctions or ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ against China under the pretext of China-Russia cooperation” and that “normal exchanges” between Chinese and Russian enterprises “are not targeted at any third party.”

Wang made an apparent attempt to address concerns about China’s ties to Russia over the weekend, framing the relationship for his audience in Munich as part of Beijing’s efforts to cooperate with “major countries” to address global challenges.

“Russia is China’s largest neighboring country,” Wang said, repeating usual statements that their relationship is not an alliance and does not “target any third party.” As such, “a China-Russia relationship that grows steadily … meets the shared interests of the two countries” and “serves the strategic stability of the Asia-Pacific and the world,” he said.

When asked by conference chairman Christoph Heusgen in a public discussion whether China should do more to rein in Russia, Wang also hit back at what he claimed were attempts “to blame China or to shift the responsibility of resolving the Ukraine crisis to China.” Beijing has worked “relentlessly” to promote peace talks, he said.

The diplomat reiterated as much in a meeting with Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba on Saturday, stressing that China does not “sell lethal weapons to conflict areas or parties of conflict” and that it would “not give up its efforts” to re-establish peace.

But those efforts have fallen well short of European hopes that China would use its considerable economic leverage and regular high-level communication with Russia, including between Xi and Putin, to end the conflict in a way that respected Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Instead, a push from Beijing to frame itself as a potential peacemaker in the conflict, spearheaded by Wang at last year’s Munich Security Conference, hasn’t produced tangible results. A plan for a “political settlement” of the conflict put forward by Beijing at that time was widely criticized as likely to help Moscow consolidate its territorial gains, as it called for a ceasefire without the prior withdrawal of Russian troops.

It’s also unclear whether Beijing will attend an upcoming Ukraine-backed Global Peace Summit in Switzerland. Kuleba raised the event in his meeting with Wang, according to a statement on the Ukrainian diplomat’s X account. Beijing’s readout did not mention the event.

The ‘Trump factor’

Observers say that against this backdrop, Wang’s apparent attempts to dial down European concerns about China’s position relative to the war may have little impact within the EU.

“As long as war in Ukraine continues, EU policies toward China will move into closer alignment with the US. Most likely, Europeans will join the US to double down export restrictions over critical technologies in light of viewing the Union’s economic security as paramount,” according to Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China at the Chatham House think tank in London.

The bloc is considering a host of measures that would help it to “de-risk” European supply chains from China, secure critical technologies and protect its market from what it sees as certain artificially cheap Chinese goods. Beijing sees European policy as excessively influenced by the United States.

Wang also attempted to push back against such measures in Munich, warning that “those who attempt to shut China out in the name of ‘de-risking’ will make a historic mistake.”

The Chinese diplomat met a number of European counterparts on the sidelines of the security conference, before continuing on to Spain. He is also due to visit France this week.

Wang may see more success in stabilizing relations with individual EU member states interested in boosting economic ties — and those looking with uncertainty at the impending US elections, according to observers.

In his European meetings, Wang may “utilize the ‘Trump factor’ to point out that completely siding with the United States is not in the best interests of European countries,” according to Liu Dongshu, an assistant professor in the City University of Hong Kong’s department of public and international affairs.

As president, Trump not only voiced skepticism of the system of US alliances in Europe, but leveraged tariffs on European steel and aluminum, sparking retaliatory measures on US goods from Europe.

“Wang Yi may point out that … if Trump becomes president it will be a problem if (Europe) doesn’t have a good relationship with China … He wants to persuade the European countries to be more neutral,” Liu said.

Beijing has made some progress in smoothing relations with European countries in the past year, including during a visit to China from French President Emmanuel Macron last spring – a development Wang will hope to build on.

“In national capitals, there will be a greater focus on keeping the relationship with Beijing stable, in part to head off the risk of a two-front trade conflict with Beijing and Washington, should Trump return to the White House,” said Barkin of GMF, who is also a senior adviser at the New York-based Rhodium Group.

“(China’s) worst nightmare is a united transatlantic front on trade, technology and security issues … China will use Trump’s words to reinforce the message in European capitals that Washington is not a reliable partner,” he said.

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