China and E.U. Leaders Meet as Tensions Rise over Russia

Leaders of the European Union met with China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, in Beijing on Thursday in an effort to stabilize a relationship that has deteriorated in recent years over security, a soaring trade imbalance and China’s tacit support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Mr. Xi’s meeting with Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, was the first in-person summit of the leaders of China and the European Union in more than four years.

The summit was not expected to result in any significant breakthroughs. Trust between the China and the European Union has been eroded by failed promises to open China’s market wider for European businesses, as well as by Beijing’s crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. China also views Europe as being widely influenced by Beijing’s chief competitor, the United States.

Beijing has tried to court Europe to drive a wedge between the region and Washington. The war in Ukraine, however, has only strengthened the trans-Atlantic alliance as Europe has grown increasingly reliant on Washington for military aid.

The 27-member European bloc has labeled Beijing a “strategic rival” and agreed in June to work toward “de-risking” its supply chains by limiting their dependence on Chinese firms. The European Union has also aligned itself with the United States in adopting restrictions on the trade of high-tech products with China.

Those moves underscore the widening rift between the West and China as Mr. Xi has adopted a more assertive foreign policy aimed at reshaping the global order to serve Chinese interests. According to an official summary from China of Mr. Xi’s meeting with the European leaders, Mr. Xi urged them to bolster cooperation with China to enhance “political mutual trust” and “eliminate all kinds of interference,” a tacit reference to Washington.

Chinese officials have sought to push back on the European Union’s efforts to limit its economic dependence on China, saying that the two sides are not rivals, and that their common interests far outweigh their differences. It remains to be seen how far China will go to placate European officials at the summit.

No issue has frustrated European officials more than Beijing’s refusal to curtail its support for Moscow. China has aided Russia’s war effort by purchasing Russian oil and supplying the Kremlin’s military with microchips, drones and other equipment that is believed to fall just short of arms and ammunition.

Despite the backlash, China is highly unlikely to abandon Russia, calculating that it needs Moscow in the long run, as a partner in countering the United States’ global dominance.

“On the European side, one of the main tasks for the summit in Beijing is to clearly convey the message that China-Russia cooperation and its impact on the war in Ukraine remain the fundamental element shaping the future of E.U.-China relations,” Alicja Bachulska, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in an email.

Tensions are also rising over the cheaper Chinese electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines that have flooded the European market.

The region recorded a $426 billion trade deficit with China last year, its biggest ever. And as China’s economy struggles amid a spiraling housing crisis, the country may seek to ramp up exports as an engine of growth.

In September, the European Union formally started an investigation into whether electric car makers in China have received government subsidies, a move that could result in tariffs. Electric vehicles are an especially sensitive issue because auto manufacturing plays an outsized role in Europe’s economy.

“Europe is open for competition, not for a race to the bottom,” Ms. von der Leyen said earlier this year. “We must defend ourselves against unfair practices.”

China has dismissed many of Europe’s complaints about the trade imbalance, saying it does not reflect the true nature of the economic relationship. A significant portion of China’s exports to Europe are from European-owned companies based in China, it says.

“Although China appears to have the trade surplus, in fact, the European Union has reaped considerable profits,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said on Wednesday.

The success of China’s industry is a result of early investment and innovation, not subsidies, said Tu Xinquan, dean of the China Institute for WTO Studies at the University of International Business and Economics.

“There is a sense of crisis in the E.U. because the auto industry is crucial for them,” he said.

European businesses also complain of shrinking market access in China because of laws requiring foreign firms to use Chinese suppliers. Other laws concerning national security have also made China a more fraught environment for European firms.

Keith Bradsher contributed reporting.