China Miscalculated With Europe in Backing Russia, US Envoy Says

(Bloomberg) -- Beijing misjudged the impact on its relationship with Europe when it provided support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, America’s top diplomat in China said, as ties fray between the world’s No. 2 economy and Western democracies over the conflict.

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“I think the Chinese have miscalculated,” Ambassador Nicholas Burns told Bloomberg Television on Thursday. “I actually think the Chinese did not understand the core value that we place in our current world on peace and unity in Europe itself.”

The European Union is now acting in “outright opposition” to China’s support for Moscow, added Burns, who took up his post in the Asian nation days after the invasion. The EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have both called China a systemic rival “in part because of this,” he said.

President Xi Jinping’s government offered diplomatic and economic support to Russia after it invaded Ukraine in 2022, triggering one of the worst security crises in Europe since World War II. The Chinese leader has since faced repeated calls from the US and Europe to use his “no limits” friendship with President Vladimir Putin to help end the conflict.

“China is not exhibiting the behavior of a neutral country,” Burns said, referring to Beijing’s previous comments on its position. The US has complained to Beijing “at great length, at very senior levels” over concerns that Chinese companies are providing Russia with dual-use technology that’s being used in the war, he added.

Leaders in Washington and Europe have warned in recent months that Chinese banks could be hit with sanctions for bolstering the Kremlin’s war machine, as they ramp up pressure on China to act. German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck earlier this month called on China to stop diverting exports of European goods to Russia that could be used in the war on Ukraine.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lin Jian earlier this month denied his nation provides weapons to “parties to the conflict,” saying Beijing “strictly controls the export of dual-use articles.”

Ukraine has struggled to win support from Beijing and other Global South nations in the wake of Russia’s invasion. Top leaders from China and Brazil were both absent from a Swiss-sponsored peace summit earlier this month. Communist Party officials have touted an alternative proposal for ending the war, which includes an international conference recognized by both Russia and Ukraine.

“This is an existential war,” Burns said. “One of the great, great achievements of the end of the Cold War was a free, democratic and united Europe with no divisions in it whatsoever.”

Burns’ criticisms come days after he accused China of undercutting US efforts to repair fraying ties between the two superpowers, claiming Beijing had suppressed American diplomatic activities in the Asian nation, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Those accusations underscore tensions in the relationship, even after US President Joe Biden and Xi held talks to steady ties in California last year. Since then, a flurry of American diplomats have visited Beijing to keep communication lines open, as fresh spats emerge including over a surge of cheap Chinese exports that has resulted in looming electric car tariffs from the US and Europe.

Burns’ Other Remarks ...

On people-to-people exchanges: “We don’t want to see a decoupling of our populations, we want more students back and forth, business travelers and tourists.” Burns said Chinese security officials have interrupted US embassy and consulate attempts to engage with Chinese people on 61 occasions since the meeting between Xi and Biden last year.

  • He added that Chinese citizens were “threatened or intimidated” against attending an LGBTQ+ reception held at his private residence earlier this month.

On the Middle East: Burns said the US has asked China to use its influence to diffuse crises in Gaza and the Red Sea but he hadn’t seen that happening.

  • One of the “tests” for China, if it wants to be a great power, is “to be responsible so that in a great international crisis like the war in Gaza or like what the Houthis are doing to disrupt the entire shipping regime in that part of the world — you have to roll up your sleeves, you have to work on both sides of the problems,” he said.

On trade and climate: Burns said that US tariffs on Chinese clean technologies do not undermine the Biden administration’s climate pledges. He highlighted concerns of “overcapacity” and “dumping” as China pushes into the ‘new three’ industries to boost its economy: solar panels, batteries and electric vehicles.

  • “We think actually we’re going to be better placed around the world to respond to climate change if there are other sources of production,” including building green industries out in America, he said. “The Chinese would like a situation, frankly, of Chinese domination of these markets. That’s not in anyone’s interests.”

On stabbing of four teachers from US college: “I’m not satisfied yet that we’ve been given sufficient information by the Chinese authorities” about the identity and motive of the assailant, Burns said. “I’m not going to relent on our quest to find out more information.”

--With assistance from Colum Murphy and K. Oanh Ha.

(Updates with details of Nicholas Burns’ comments throughout.)

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