China’s top diplomat set out on a three-nation trip Tuesday to persuade European leaders that they can do business with Beijing, even as the Chinese tried to keep faith with their “unlimited partnership” with a Russia that has plunged Europe into war.
But arriving in Berlin, Foreign Minister Qin Gang was quickly confronted about the war in Ukraine.
“Neutrality means taking the side of the aggressor, and that is why our guiding principle is to make it clear that we are on the side of the victim,” the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, declared at a joint news conference after they met. Beijing, she said, could be doing much more to help bring the war to an end.
Mr. Qin defended his nation’s approach. “The Ukraine issue is of high complexity,” he insisted. “China did not cause this, nor is it a party, but we are committed to peace negotiations.”
He said that China would continue to seek a cease-fire and pledged that it would “neither watch the fire from the other bank nor add fuel to the fire.”
The Chinese foreign minister may find the going a little easier on the next leg of his trip, in France. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has been eager to maintain both business and diplomatic ties with Beijing. Last month, he made his own journey to China, and some of his comments there alarmed his American and European allies.
Mr. Macron said that Europe should be pursuing its own interests and “strategic autonomy” and “not get caught up in crises that are not ours.” He suggested that the fate of Taiwan was not a central issue for Europe, and argued that Europe should not blindly follow the United States in its rivalry with China.
Even if some read too much into Mr. Macron’s words, they were music to Chinese ears, given Beijing’s goal of trying to divide Europe from the United States. In Berlin on Tuesday, Mr. Qin hit some the same themes that Mr. Macron did.
“China supports Europe’s self-chosen development path, supports its European strategic autonomy, and it also maintains a steady and stable European policy,” he said.
Caught between wanting to support Russia, woo Europe and stabilize relations with its most important rival, the United States, China has proposed a set of weak proposals for a possible peace between Russia and Ukraine. Few take them very seriously, especially with the fighting likely to intensify soon, but some officials and analysts suggest that China may prove useful down the road in helping guarantee any cease-fire or settlement.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is seen as one of the few voices that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia might heed. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has also spoken with Mr. Xi, who phoned him last month after much urging from the Ukrainian leader.
But senior European and American officials do not believe that either Mr. Putin or Mr. Zelensky is ready for serious peace talks, or even that Mr. Xi is willing to press Mr. Putin for peace. They believe that China, given its rivalry with the United States, is eager for Mr. Putin not to be seen as losing his war and thereby risk losing power.
Much will depend, as ever, on the situation on the battlefield after Ukraine wages a much-anticipated counteroffensive. Even if Ukraine gains considerable ground, U.S. and European officials do not expect Russian troops to collapse or to flee from all sovereign Ukrainian territory. But if Ukraine has great success, it may be more willing to discuss a settlement.
It is less clear that Mr. Putin will have any interest in doing so, believing that time is on his side, with the United States and the larger NATO alliance growing tired of the long war.
On Tuesday, Mr. Qin emphasized Europe’s key economic ties to China.
“China should be a key asset for Europe in combating challenges,” he said, “and we welcome Europe to further participate in the market and development opportunities of China, so that both Chinese modernization and the European integration process continue to prosper.”
As the European Union considers another package of sanctions aimed at companies that supply Russia through third countries, like Azerbaijan and Georgia, Mr. Qin warned against imposing sanctions on Chinese companies over Russia, saying it would take action to protect their interests.
The proposed sanctions could touch a number of Chinese companies, but Mr. Qin said that Chinese and Russian companies enjoy “normal exchanges and cooperation” which “should not be affected.”
Tensions with China are hardly limited to Europe.
When the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, Nicholas Burns, met on Monday with Mr. Qin, their exchanges were polite but pointed; it was their first meeting since relations were frozen by the dispute over the Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down over the United States in February.
Mr. Qin told Mr. Burns that “the agenda of dialogue and cooperation agreed by the two sides has been disrupted, and the relationship between the two countries has once again hit the cold ice,” according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement. But stabilizing ties with Washington remains a “top priority,” he said.
In a brief post on Twitter, Mr. Burns said that the two men had discussed “challenges in the U.S.-China relationship and the necessity of stabilizing ties and expanding high-level communication.”
The same day, Canada expelled a Chinese diplomat, Zhao Wei, who was based in Toronto. Canada said that Mr. Zhao had tried to intimidate a Canadian member of Parliament, Michael Chong, and his relatives in Hong Kong after Mr. Chong accused China of human rights abuses.
In response, China on Tuesday ordered the expulsion of Jennifer Lynn Lalonde, Canada’s diplomat in its Shanghai consulate and said that “China reserves the right to further react.”
Diplomatic relations between the two countries have been strained since the detention of a Huawei Technologies executive, Meng Wanzhou, who was held in Canada on U.S. fraud charges in 2018, and Beijing’s subsequent arrest of two Canadians on spying charges. All three were freed in 2021.
At the time, China insisted the two cases were not linked, but critics accused Beijing of using the Canadians as political bargaining chips.