The European Union urged China on Thursday to constructively engage in the Ukraine peace process and help prevent Russia from circumventing Western sanctions over its war against the neighboring country, leaders of the bloc said following their meetings with Chinese counterparts in Beijing.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a press conference that Russia's war against Ukraine poses a "serious threat to European security," and the EU emphasized the need for China "to use all its influence on Russia to stop this war of aggression and engage in Ukraine's peace formula."

There have been concerns that China, which has close ties with Russia, has been providing weapons to support Moscow and has been helping it circumvent the Western sanctions. European Council President Charles Michel said at the news conference that China has a "special responsibility" as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

On the economic front, von der Leyen said she and Michel agreed with Chinese President Xi Jinping that two-way trade should be balanced, as the EU's trade deficit with China swelled to about 400 billion euros ($430 billion) in 2022, reaching "unsustainable" levels.

The two EU leaders held separate talks with Xi and Chinese Premier Li Qiang for the first in-person EU-China summit since 2019 in Beijing. Xi said China and the EU should uphold a "comprehensive strategic partnership," according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

The leaders' meeting came soon after Italy officially informed China of its withdrawal from the Asian country's signature Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative, according to media reports.

Xi also said the two sides "should steer clear of various kinds of interference and step up dialogue and cooperation," alluding to the EU's ties with the United States.

Von der Leyen also cautioned over increased tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea and said, "We stand strongly against any kind of unilateral change of the status quo" by using force.

Xi said the two sides should strengthen communication and coordination via multilateral forums and promote the political settlement of international and regional hotspots, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, referring to the Ukrainian crisis and the Israel-Hamas conflict.

On economic and trade issues, Xi noted the "high degree of complementarity" between the Chinese and EU economies and called on the two sides to improve industrial and supply chains jointly.

Von der Leyen stressed at the press conference Brussels does not want to decouple from China but seeks "de-risking," or reducing dependence on the Asian powerhouse, to strengthen its economic resilience.

The regional bloc has launched a probe into China's subsidies for electric vehicles exported to the EU, which may result in the levying of countervailing tariffs.

Chinese Premier Li told the EU leaders that Beijing hopes Brussels will be prudent when introducing restrictive economic and trade policies, according to Chinese state media, in reference to the anti-subsidy probe.

As for Italy, which in 2019 became the only Group of Seven major economy to join the Belt and Road scheme, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin did not confirm whether Rome had officially notified Beijing it was pulling out of the initiative at a press conference Thursday.

China "firmly opposes attempts to smear and sabotage Belt and Road cooperation or stoke block confrontation and division," he said. The memorandum for Italy's participation will reportedly expire in March.

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