With the war in Ukraine dragging on and its two-year mark on the horizon, European views of the China-Russia relationship are almost uniformly negative. While the West remains united on the need to maintain economic sanctions against Russia, China’s position has been neutral at best, and its leadership has often shown support for Vladimir Putin’s aggressive policies.
This is causing consternation in Europe, where recent public surveys have showed a relative detachment with respect to China — on average, according to a 2022 poll, 43% of Europeans see China as a "necessary partner." However, China’s relationship with Russia is now coming under scrutiny by European policymakers. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow in March 2023 seemed to confirm the growing sentiment in Europe that China has moved closer to Russia in the past 18 months. Europeans took note of Xi’s statement that "right now there are changes the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years, and we are the ones driving these changes together," including the will to pursue closer economic cooperation between China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow also have a shared goal to bend the international system to their advantage, particularly in important regions such as the Arctic and Central Asia, where European interests are at stake. Scientific cooperation between China and Russia appears to be increasing as well. On the business front, some European transport and logistics companies face a tough choice between the risks of defying economic sanctions against Russia and the long delays involved in using China-built train routes across Eurasia.
With these developments in mind, this paper analyzes the bilateral relationship from a European standpoint. Based on interviews with European policymakers and experts, as well as multiple European sources, this paper finds that most European Union (EU) states are alarmed by the stronger partnership between the two countries and condemn China’s support of Russia. In addition, in some areas, such as the Arctic and maritime affairs, Europeans feel they should prepare themselves for a greater Sino-Russian challenge in the future. European disillusionment with the war in Ukraine could impact the EU’s long-term relationship not only with Russia but also with China.
Variations Among European Union Members
Although there is a sense across the EU that the China-Russia relationship has become strategic, the degree of awareness depends on historical, geographical, and sociological factors. There is some divergence of opinion between EU countries that were part of the Socialist bloc during the Cold War and those in Western Europe.
Europeans have a long history of dealing with Russia, and previously the Soviet Union, including occupations in Eastern and Northern Europe, military interventions, economic coercion, forced labor, and human rights violations. To many European countries, the Russian ambition of domination is a long-established fact. These realities add up to a negative image of Russia in parts of Europe. China, however, has been a relatively remote power, although it is now the EU’s top trading partner.
China’s relations with Eastern and Central Europe peaked during the Cold War, when some countries, such as Romania and Bulgaria, enjoyed fairly good relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), especially in the 1960s. This "special relationship" faded after the fall of the Berlin Wall and remained dormant until 2010–2016, when Beijing tried to create a specific forum to foster relations with Eastern and Central Europe, known as the 16+1, with the aim of promoting Chinese investments in the region and the Belt and Road Initiative. However, this scheme was viewed critically by the European Commission, which saw it as a diversion from its own China policy.
But as China’s promised investments in Eastern and Central Europe failed to appear, the 16+1 forum began to lose momentum. Above all, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has seriously affected Beijing’s standing in Eastern Europe, where many see a rapprochement between the two authoritarian regimes as a threat to their democratic systems.
Interviews with officials and experts in Warsaw, Tallinn, Brussels, Paris, and Berlin reveal nuances in the way Europeans understand the Sino-Russian "friendship without limits." Perceptions in Europe vary depending on the country’s background and prior relations with China and Russia. A 2022 poll showed that if China were to supply ammunition and weapons to Russia, that would constitute a "red line" for many Europeans (although no official definition of "red line" has ever been given in Brussels or any other capital). On average, 41% of Europeans would support sanctioning Beijing in that event, even if it meant seriously damaging Western economies. A minority of 33%, on average, would oppose sanctions.
When it comes to the conflict in Ukraine, Poland represents Europe’s front line, and its relationship with China has been deeply impacted by the war and other factors. Even though the Polish government says that it wants to rebalance its trade relationship, "recent economic and political developments in China, such as the process of China closing up during COVID-19, the announcement of the 'dual circulation' concept and increasing PRC global assertiveness have affected Poland’s perception of China."1 Experts say that Poland has modified its stance toward China, especially because of China’s deepening ties to Russia — a country that is seen in Poland as the most serious security threat. (This perception significantly predates the Russian occupation of Crimea and Donbas and the ongoing war in Ukraine.) Alongside those in the EU, Polish attitudes toward China have been evolving from "enthusiasm" to "increasing vigilance" since 2017. Beijing’s support for Moscow has further weakened Poland’s perception of China.
On several occasions, Polish authorities have called on China to condemn Russia’s aggression, including during the telephone exchange between Presidents Andrzej Duda and Xi Jinping in July 2022 and during the visit of Chinese special envoy for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui to Warsaw in the spring of 2023. But as long as China supports Russia in its endeavors, the Sino-Polish relationship will continue to deteriorate.
The Baltic States
An even worse scenario can be observed in the three Baltic states, which joined the EU in 2004 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Originally part of the 16+1 format (now 14+1), these countries have loosened their relations with China in recent years. Lithuania pioneered the shift in 2019 when it left the body and approved the establishment of an official Taiwan government presence in Vilnius. This provoked a furious Chinese reaction with trade sanctions against not only Lithuania but also European companies trading with the Baltic state. In return, the EU filed a case against China with the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva.
Lithuania’s policy was nurtured domestically as members of its political elite became critical of the Chinese regime. Following the imposition of Chinese sanctions, Vilnius somewhat benefited from the Chinese boycott and therefore was able to develop new ties with Southeast Asia and Taiwan.
Latvia and Estonia have taken slightly different approaches. According to scholar Una Aleksandra Bērziņa-Čerenkova, "Latvia does not have a China strategy: it needs to address China’s position with regard to Russia and the war in Ukraine, re-cast Latvian interests within a broader Indo-Pacific narrative and balance Latvia’s infrastructure needs with concerns about China."2 Originally, Latvia’s "unofficial code of conduct" included treating China as a prospective export market — balancing politics with economics.
Baltic experts acknowledge that China’s pro-Russia stance in the war in Ukraine could feed a "sentiment of discontent" toward China. Latvia has been calling for Beijing to take a more determined and responsible position against Russia’s war.
Like its neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia has dismal economic ties with the PRC. It fully backs the EU’s position on China and chose to withdraw from the 17+1 group alongside its two Baltic neighbors. Having provided nearly €400 million — more than 1% of its GDP — in military assistance, Estonia has been on the front line of European support for the Ukrainian struggle against Russia’s invasion. For that reason, it is highly suspicious of China’s close ties to Putin’s regime.
Germany and France
In Western Europe, Germany has had to reassess its relations with Russia following the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Many debates have taken place in Berlin, especially within the ruling coalition. A few days after Russia attacked Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a member of the Social Democratic Party, delivered an important speech, promising a new approach to defense and security and offering an extra €100 billion to be spent on reinforcing Germany’s armed forces. In May 2023, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius announced a new €2.7 billion package of measures for Ukraine (including 30 Leopard tanks), adding that "Germany will provide all the help it can, for as long as it takes." Two months later, Germany published a China strategy in which it reassessed its relationship with a more assertive Beijing. One aspect covered in the strategy is the Sino-Russian relationship:
China’s relationship with Russia, in particular since Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, is an immediate security concern for Germany. In their joint declaration of 4 February 2022, China and Russia committed to significantly intensifying their cooperation in all spheres … Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is a fundamental violation of the UN Charter. China is not credibly defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, while at the same time it does support Russian narratives that are directed against NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization). We remain engaged in a dialogue with China and urge China to clearly declare its opposition to Russia’s war of aggression.
Still, some members of the German policy establishment do not believe that Russia "wants to follow the Chinese way." Russia has a readiness to escalate against the West, while German experts believe that Beijing does not want to appear confrontational with Europe in particular. Despite obvious economic discrepancies, Russian elites consider their country and culture to be superior to China, according to several European experts interviewed for this paper. They estimate that it would be hard, if not impossible, for China to pull out of the special relationship with Russia. "China is carefully showing Russia that she is the big fish," said Jakub Jakóbowski of the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW).
As for France, Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna has called on China to leverage its relationship with Moscow to convince the Kremlin that "Russia is [at] an impasse and should return to reason." France worries about the growing Chinese convergence on a number of issues, from their rising interest in the Arctic to dual-use technologies, and a potential Sino-Russian collaboration in the Global South. But Beijing has remained relatively quiet on French requests, apart from a telephone conversation between presidents Xi Jinping and Volodymyr Zelenskyy on April 25, 2023. A few weeks later, President Emmanuel Macron criticized Russia for employing "a form of vassalization with regard to China," cutting ties with Baltic states and pushing Sweden and Finland to join NATO, "which would have been unthinkable two years ago." The statement led to furious comments from the Kremlin. As a leader who has attempted to engage Putin on several occasions — even just days before the war in Ukraine began — Macron can observe that Europeans are now rallying behind NATO, somewhat putting aside his ambitious, prewar "European strategic autonomy," a concept that refers to the ability of European countries to act autonomously and independently of others in strategically important areas. European strategic autonomy has taken a backstep.
The “Asymmetric” Partnership
In many European countries, the Beijing-Moscow axis is seen as an "asymmetric" partnership between two authoritarian regimes preoccupied with their own survival in an international environment that both view as unfriendly. This has been the case, especially since 2012, when Xi Jinping ascended to power and Vladimir Putin had already concluded (in his 12th year in the Kremlin) that the United States’ ambition was to contain — or to overthrow? — his regime. Even though China and Russia have different political cultures and differ in their assessments of one another’s motivations, "they are fundamentally unified by a similar perception of international relations and their approach to foreign policy," according to a 2021 OSW report on the Beijing-Moscow axis.
Against the backdrop of the Ukrainian context and the threat posed by Russia, Eastern and Northern European countries are now under no illusion when it comes to Moscow; their assessment of China is also getting gloomier. They see NATO as the only option to defend their borders. Driven by their own national interests, larger countries such as France, Germany, and Italy are willing to maintain a fairly close dialogue with China — even under such circumstances. No matter what, China is a major power whose decisions will continue to impact the global order. Paris, in particular, sees no option but to build up European defenses rather than rely exclusively on NATO and the United States, and it wants to continue to engage with major powers around the world. As for German multinationals, they see China remaining a fairly attractive consumer market and sometimes a resource center for innovation. The German economy cannot afford to close the door to China.
The Sino-Russian Partnership and Its Impact on Europe: Two Examples
One area in which the EU and individual European governments have reason to be concerned is the maritime sector. Over the past decade, China and Russia have transformed Europe’s maritime security seascape through their military basing access and port investments across maritime Europe, from the Baltic and Black Seas to the Mediterranean. While China’s role is mainly commercial, the Russian navy has maintained a presence in several seas bordering the European continent.
First, China has built a strong presence in European ports. It began with the Greek harbor of Piraeus (where it owns 67% of the Piraeus Port Authority) and is increasingly investing in other key European infrastructure. As the EU is China’s primary destination for exports (€472 billion in 2021), it has opened new trade routes to stimulate growth. In 2013, Beijing also launched its Belt and Road Initiative. Since then, Chinese firms have been developing economic interests in ports in European countries including France, Malta, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and Italy. In 2022, China invested in a port terminal in Hamburg, Germany.
The main Chinese players are China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) Shipping, the world’s largest shipping company; China Merchants Port Holdings, the sixth-largest port terminal operator globally; and the Hong Kong–listed Hutchison Port Holdings. In Northern Europe, these companies have a port presence in Hamburg, where COSCO has a 24.9% holding; Zeebrugge, Belgium, where COSCO owns a controlling stake; and Antwerp, where China Merchants owns a minority stake. In the Netherlands, Hutchison Port Holdings operates an inland terminal in Willebroek and two terminals in Rotterdam; it also operates inland terminals in Venlo, Amsterdam, and Moerdijk. In Sweden and Poland, Hutchison Port Holdings has stakes in Stockholm and Gdynia ports. Meanwhile, China has been redirecting container traffic between neighboring ports — causing concern to European governments, which have started coordinating on the matter.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had some impact on the logistics sector in Northern Europe, as Europeans worry about enhanced cooperation between China and Russia. Some European port operators fear that their dependence on Chinese players associated with Russian cooperation could pose a threat to their development.
Second, Russia has continued to invest in its navy. Alongside its massive use of land and air forces in the Ukraine war effort, Moscow has maintained a steady naval presence on the Black and Baltic Seas, making use of the Crimean territory captured in 2014. For example, the Russian Black Sea Fleet has nearly 50 warships, seven submarines, and many support vessels. According to some reports, Russia has authorized 13 new nuclear and conventional submarines since 2014, and it has replaced some of its frigate-class warships. The Russian Federation’s July 2022 Maritime Doctrine states that Russia endeavors to maintain "stability in the World Ocean, strengthening national influence and developing mutually beneficial partnerships in the field of maritime activities in an emerging polycentric world."3
There are signs that China and Russia might enhance their global strategic cooperation in the maritime sector. Exchanges have multiplied. The combination of naval activities and port investments carries some risks in the eyes of EU and NATO officials. A 2021 report to the European Parliament suggested that the EU should invest in coastal defense, possibly through coast guards. Better cooperation such as multilateral naval exercises with Indo-Pacific partners and allies such as Japan and India should be developed.
Opportunities in the Arctic abound, in economic terms as well as scientific insights, biodiversity, sea routes, and untapped natural resources, in addition to strategic footholds. Long before the Ukraine war, China could see many potential benefits of linking its shipping lanes to the North Atlantic. Beijing unilaterally created its own term of classification to link its relations with the Arctic — "Near-Arctic State" — revealing the role that Beijing wishes to play and the legitimacy in the region that it wants to assert, including through the maritime route of the Artic, often called the Northern Sea Routes, part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Now that China and Russia are enhancing their cooperation, security experts are wondering whether Russia will open the door to a Chinese presence in the Arctic, including exploration and bilateral cooperation.
Since 2012, Ocean University of China (OUC) and St. Petersburg State University have been organizing an annual China-Russia Arctic Forum, an academic exchange between the two countries dedicated to the Arctic. China has been active in building people-to-people connections through academic exchanges and interactions with leaders at the local level. As Estonian scholar Frank Jüris notes, "Polar scientists and leaders at the local level with limited Chinese language skills, poor knowledge of the Chinese political system and its operating mechanisms are easy and valuable targets for creating positive sentiment towards Chinese interests in the region through their high standing in society. In addition, neither target group is accustomed nor compelled to think in terms of national security."
The OUC works in close cooperation with China’s Navy Submarine Academy, and it is involved in research applicable to the military. For example, there is collaboration on undersea surveillance and hydroacoustics. Since 2019, the Qingdao National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology and the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IO RAS) have been partnering to create the Russian-Chinese Arctic Research Center in Moscow, with a branch in Qingdao for joint expeditions in the Arctic to explore resources and monitor changes in the ecosystem. Many aspects of the Sino-Russian scientific collaboration in the Arctic would have significant military applications.
Jüris highlights the Finnish-led Arctic Connect project based on Chinese technology, which may increase the security risks for European countries. Huawei Marine is the lead technology company in this project, whose goal is to link internet users in Europe, Russia, and Asia by building an undersea fiber-optic cable system along the Northern Silk Road. If the project is completed, China and Russia could benefit from intelligence gathering and cyber defense capabilities.
Authors Bertelsen and Kobzeva have argued that the diminution of scientific and other academic exchanges between the United States and Russia and between the United States and China have raised the risks of "destabilizing effects of Arctic space Science and Technology." The role of space assets in communication, Earth observation, navigation, and positioning, as well as the risks of nuclear escalation in the current conflict in Ukraine, emphasize the importance of U.S.-Russian strategic stability and of space security. "Simple exchanges of information between the U.S., Russia, and China as well as other relevant Arctic and non-Arctic states is the feasible first step for later arms control."4 Still, the risks outweigh the opportunities. Already concerned with the Ukraine war, many European nations worry about the effect of China’s slowing economy. Under the banner of "de-risking" — a term first used by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a March 2023 speech — a number of multinationals have been quietly reducing their exposure to Chinese supply chains in sectors such as biotech, artificial intelligence, and chemicals.
Following their departure from Russia, which sometimes included major financial losses, European industrials must now learn to deal with an increasingly challenging Chinese market. Finally, Europeans have been nervously watching China and Russia getting closer on international theaters such as Africa, where European presence has become increasingly contentious. As China may be almost exclusively an economic player in Africa, its huge interests need to be preserved. On the other hand, Russia has been interfering in security matters through unofficial mercenary groups such as Wagner in Africa, without ever receiving a single criticism from Beijing. On the contrary, the PRC seems content to profile an apparent rapprochement between BRICS countries, including Russia, as shown during the Johannesburg summit in August 2023. Not only did the group add six new member states, but none openly criticized Russian actions in Ukraine, despite Putin’s absence on South African soil. Europeans see a growing Sino-Russian collaboration trying to create an alternative to the Western-led global system. The Global South’s lukewarm response to Western calls regarding the war in Ukraine may be a signal that Beijing and Moscow may have already succeeded in driving part of the developing world into the neutrality camp.
With rising negative European perceptions of both China and Russia in the context of Ukraine, the EU is faced with major political decisions.
The war in Ukraine and its consequences have pushed the EU to develop or redesign strategic approaches to Russia. At the same time, discussions on China in all European countries have matured. The EU and individual European governments have designed sophisticated policies, coordination mechanisms, and regulatory tools for engaging with China. Many new instruments, such as the anti-coercion instrument, also aim to protect the EU.
The next few months, which will see several long-awaited high-level EU-China meetings, will show how this translates in concrete terms. The 2023 report of the European Think-tank Network on China (ETNC) states that 20 of the 24 countries studied by this group of scholars are pursuing specific China policies, in coordination with the EU. This was not the case just a decade ago, when China’s presence on the European continent appeared almost benign and purely economic. At the time, only a handful of European governments, including France and the United Kingdom, saw China as a political power, aspiring to play a major role. A majority of Europeans instead perceived globalization as a trade matter — and China exclusively as a manufacturer and a market.
The bloody war launched by Vladimir Putin against Ukraine has created a riskier environment, especially in Eastern, Central, and Northern Europe. Critically, the Ukraine war has been a wake-up call for Germany, which has agreed to EU restrictions on certain Chinese imports in the automobile and battery sectors. While the debate over Europe’s strategic autonomy has raged over the past year against the backdrop of the Ukraine war and U.S. support, China’s global role is becoming more prominent both economically and diplomatically. Europeans see China pushing its own strategic interests in regions bordering Europe, such as the Arctic, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia. As a result, Beijing’s support for Moscow’s actions has become a major element of Europe’s foreign policy discussions. Therefore, it is relevant to monitor and closely analyze not only China and Russia, but also the increasingly strong and complex linkages between these two powers.
- Justyna Szczudlik, “Poland: Fading Hopes for Cooperation with China,” in From a China Strategy to No Strategy at All: Exploring the Diversity of European Approaches, ed. Bernhard Bartsch and Claudia Wessling (Brussels: European Think-tank Network on China, 2023), 219, https://merics.org/sites/default/files/2023-07/ETNC_Report_2023_final.p….
- Una Aleksandra Bērziņa-Čerenkova, “Latvia: Settling In for a Moderate ‘Steer Clear’ Approach, in Bartsch and Wessling, From a China Strategy to No Strategy at All, 98–99.
- Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation, July 31, 2022, translated by Anna Davis and Ryan Vest, Russia Maritime Studies Institute, U.S. Naval War College, p. 4, https://dnnlgwick.blob.core.windows.net/portals/0/NWCDepartments/Russia….
- Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen and Mariia Kobzeva, “Space Science and Technology in the Arctic and Global Strategic Stability and Space Security,” Arctic University of Norway/University of Akureyri. (unpublished book chapter).