The EU holds a virtual summit with China on Friday amid increasing alarm over Beijing's growing proximity with Moscow and its reluctance to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Chinese President Xi Jinping will hold the videoconference with EU leaders Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, carrying through on an annual exercise that was skipped last year as tensions simmered, AFP said.
"The meeting will focus on the role we are urging China to play, to be on the side of the principles of international law without ambiguity and exert all the necessary influence and pressure on Russia," said French European affairs minister Clement Beaune, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency.
"This was not the initial purpose of the summit but it necessarily became one," Beaune said, though he insisted other topics such as climate and trade "would not disappear".
The EU-China summit is usually an effort to deepen trade ties. But last year's exchange of tit-for-tat sanctions over the plight of China's Uyghur minority, followed by Beijing's trade coercion of EU-member Lithuania over Taiwan, soured preparations for the meeting.
The downgrade in relations came surprisingly quickly after the EU and China secured an investment deal in late 2020 long sought by Germany.
Human rights concerns, and US pressure on the EU, sapped momentum, sowing distrust and sinking diplomatic ties.
Relations have suffered further as Beijing abstains from condemning Moscow's assault on Ukraine. Some in the EU see the emergence of a Chinese-Russian bloc against the US, EU and their more liberal-minded allies.
In a meeting with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Wednesday said that "China-Russia cooperation has no limits", repeating a line used by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi.
The friendship between Russia and China "is clearly directed towards creating a new world order in which authoritarian great power politics would dominate over the international rule of law," said German MEP Reinhard Buetikofer, a frequent critic of Beijing.
But given China's close commercial ties to Europe, "China's ways of dealing with Russia's aggression is a convoluted effort to be on Russia's side without paying too much of a price for that," added Buetikofer, one of several MEPs sanctioned by China.
- 'Pipe dream' -
An EU official involved in preparing the summit, which includes a session with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, stressed the importance of China’s stance on Russia over all else.
"It has very concrete significance whether China uses or does not use its influence to have ceasefire established, humanitarian corridors established, that it doesn't help or helps to circumvent sanctions."
But Sylvie Bermann, a former French ambassador to both Moscow and Beijing, cautioned: "The idea of detaching China from Russia is a pipe dream."
While Ukraine is at the top of the agenda for European leaders, the same cannot be said for Beijing.
Asked Wednesday what the Communist leadership expects from the summit, a Chinese foreign affairs spokesman did not once mention Ukraine by name.
"The international situation is unstable and volatile, and uncertainty is increasing," the spokesman, Wang Wenbin, said, adding: "China and the EU are two major powers for world peace."
But a senior EU official insisted that China "has to realize that, while it thinks that (the Russian invasion of Ukraine) has nothing to do with EU-China relations, actually it does".
Ding Chun, a professor at the Institute of Global Economics at Fudan University in Shanghai, still expected Ukraine to make it into the conversation, even if no developments were expected.
"The two parties will simply share their respective positions," he told AFP.