NATO leaders warn China: Don’t act as Russia’s enabler
Western leaders have had enough of China’s comradeship with Russia during the war in Ukraine.
At a meeting of NATO heads of state and government in Brussels on Thursday, the leaders zeroed in on fears that China could increasingly act as an enabler of the Kremlin — through arms, trade lifelines and disinformation — just as the West wants to batter Russia with sanctions and undercut its offensive in Ukraine with weapons deliveries.
“Almost all” of the 30 national leaders spoke about China, according to a senior official with knowledge of the extraordinary summit.
Unsurprisingly it was U.S. President Joe Biden who led the charge against China and recalled the warnings of economic fallout that he delivered to Chinese President Xi Jinping in a telephone call last week: “I made no threat but I pointed out the numbers of American and foreign corporations that had left Russia as a result of that barbaric behavior,” he said in a news conference.
Biden added that China “understands that its economic future is much more closely tied to the West than it is to Russia.”
China does indeed face divided priorities over Russia.
On the one hand, Beijing wants to have an authoritarian partner to help it act as a counterweight to Washington. Chinese state media have blamed NATO for the war, Foreign Minister Wang Yi describes the friendship with Moscow as “rock solid” and European leaders have received what a senior EU official calls “very reliable evidence” that Beijing is considering arms sales to Russia. On the other hand, Biden’s veiled threat of economic fallout for China is a nightmare for a country that wants to keep selling its goods to rich Western markets.
In their statement, the NATO leaders called on China “to uphold the international order including the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, as enshrined in the UN Charter, to abstain from supporting Russia’s war effort in any way, and to refrain from any action that helps Russia circumvent sanctions.”
The statement added: “We are concerned by recent public comments by [Chinese] officials and call on China to cease amplifying the Kremlin’s false narratives, in particular on the war and on NATO, and to promote a peaceful resolution to the conflict.”
A NATO diplomat described this as an “unmistakably sharp” message to Beijing endorsed by political leaders, including pro-China Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Emmanuel Macron, the French president who generally prefers a conciliatory relationship with his Chinese counterpart.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also held a meeting with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Japan is widely considered the staunchest U.S. ally in the Indo-Pacific against China’s rise.
China has been dismissive of attempts to isolate Russia and refused to follow what it calls the West’s “unilateral” sanctions.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters that he “strongly” appealed to Xi to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “I had a conversation with the Chinese president about this issue, and then together with the French president [Emmanuel Macron], in which we advocated very strongly that China condemn the invasion of Ukraine,” Scholz told reporters at a press conference following the G7 summit in Brussels. He added that he and Macron also “presented our position on this issue” to the Chinese leader.
All the NATO leaders hoped that China would use its influence to sway Russia, according to Stoltenberg.
“Our message to China is that they should join the rest of the world and condemn the brutal war against Ukraine, and not support Russia either with economic support or of course military support,” Stoltenberg said after the meeting.
Speaking in Pakistan, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang said: “The Ukraine crisis tells the world that … basing one’s security on another country’s insecurity will lead to the eruption of contradiction. Today, in the 21st century, having military groups or bloc confrontation is not popular, and doesn’t have a future.”
A statement from G7 leaders made no direct reference to China, but said: “We urge all countries not to give military or other assistance to Russia to help continue its aggression in Ukraine. We will be vigilant regarding any such assistance.”
The EU’s trade commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis, on Thursday described China’s position as “quite ambiguous.”
“Sometimes they seem to be aligning with Russia, sometimes they are keeping some distance.”
Dombrovskis argued it was important to discuss this with China — potentially during the EU-China summit on April 1 — in order to make sure “they are not supporting Russia’s aggressive war in Ukraine.”
“So, from my point of view, the timing of the summit is very good and allows us to have this discussion and hopefully come up with some positive result,” he said at a Transatlantic Conference organised by the Amcham EU chamber of commerce on Thursday.
Hans von der Burchard and Barbara Moens contributed reporting.