Europe’s skepticism toward China grows

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Beijing’s tacit support for Putin during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hasn’t been lost on Europeans, who are viewing the Chinese government with growing skepticism.

Why it matters: “What we are witnessing now is a major shift when it comes to China’s relations with central Europe, and with the EU in general,” said Jakub Jakóbowski, senior fellow at the China program at the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw.

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State of play: The Chinese government has presented itself as neutral in the conflict, but Chinese officials and state media have widely disseminated pro-Russia disinformation and government censors have scrub bed the Chinese internet of pro-Ukraine views.

  • Russian banks and companies are turning to China for an economic lifeline amid tough Western sanctions.

  • China’s abstention from the UN Security Council resolution denouncing Russia’s invasion also irked Europeans, who have rallied around Ukraine.

This pro-Russia stance has accelerated a shift in Europe toward viewing Beijing not just as a trade partner but also a security concern.

  • The European Commission labeled China a “systemic rival” in 2019, but the bloc has also emphasized its own strategic autonomy to distance itself from tougher US policies on China.

  • “For years, China was trying to present itself as a geopolitically transparent actor that has nothing to do with regional security in Europe and is only aiming at cooperation,” Jakóbowski said. Now “China is certainly becoming a part of the European security landscape, though not directly, but as a Russian enabler.”

  • European officials and the European public now “see quite clearly that there are similarities between Russia and China,” Didi Tatlow, senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Axios.

Yes, goal: Some top European officials still believe China can play a constructive role in the conflict.

  • Josep Borrell, the EU’s top foreign policy official, said last week that Beijing should be the one to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, a role the Chinese government has also proposed.

Between the lines: China must balance opposing risks in its dealings with Europe and Russia, Patrik Oksanen, senior fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum, told Axios.

  • “If they support Russia too much, they will risk having a united West against them,” Oksanen said.”

  • But “if they don’t support Russia, and Russia collapses and leaves the international arena, then the US could focus its attention on China instead.”

What to watch: How EU leaders translate their newfound skepticism of Beijing into policy.

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