The European Union’s top officials should have been sitting on a Chinese high-speed train on Tuesday morning, zipping between Beijing and the port city of Tianjin for an annual dialogue with their Chinese counterparts.

Instead the conference was postponed at the last minute and Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso were stuck in Brussels trying to hammer out a deal to save the eurozone.

The change of plans saved the three leaders from what would have been a rather uncomfortable summit, during which Chinese officials would have tried to extract maximum political advantage out of their beleaguered guests.

European politicians are not quite coming cap in hand to Beijing to ask for a bailout, but they are clearly hoping that China and other developing countries like Brazil will see it as being in their own interests to pitch in some cash to help out.

Suggestions include a plan for China and other governments to contribute money to the IMF that is then used to support sovereign debt markets or recapitalise European banks, but Chinese officials coyly insist they have not been formally asked for anything yet.

They say they expect a formal request for assistance at the upcoming G20 meeting in Cannes on November 3 and 4 and they may very well agree to help out – just as they did in the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2009, when they bought $50bn of special IMF bonds.

That appears a trifling figure for a country with $3,200bn in foreign exchange reserves to throw around but don’t expect Beijing to cough up much more.

In public, the message is supportive and encouraging.

“China is confident that the EU has the ability and wisdom to overcome these straits. We have always provided what help we can to the countries concerned via bilateral and multilateral channels,” a government spokesperson said on Monday.

But in private, Chinese officials say the suggestion that China will do much more to save Europe is preposterous.

“Ask a Chinese farmer if China should save Europe and he will ask who is going to save him,” one senior politician recently told the FT. “The key issue at the moment is that the market doesn’t have sufficient confidence in [European] government policy and the ability of the government to carry out the right policies – so if your governments can’t convince the market then what can China do or say to convince them?”

To many in China the current crisis in Europe is just the inevitable result of decadent westerners living beyond their means for far too long.

In a country where the modern era officially begins with the first of the “Opium wars” in 1840 and is defined in official histories by the humiliating colonial incursions into China by European powers there is more than a little secret pleasure to be had from the prospect of those powers now asking for help.

But the impression in Chinese business circles is still that Europe has a very hard time accepting investment from the developing world.

Whether grounded in reality or not, the common feeling in Beijing is that if a US investors buys a company in Europe then that is viewed positively, but if a Chinese or Indian investor wants to do the same then it is viewed as a threat.

From the Chinese government’s perspective there is a sense that Europe expects to be bailed out because if it goes down then it will take a lot of the world economy with it.

And Beijing complains that while asking for help on the one hand, European governments refuse to consider longstanding Chinese demands that Europe grant it market economy status and lift an arms embargo introduced after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

China will keep making soothing noises about confidence and support for Europe and may even pitch in with some spare change from its foreign exchange reserves.

But in the end China’s leaders believe it is up to Europe and its own people and governments to sort out their problems themselves.

Related reading:
The beyondbrics eurozone file

Eurozone: Brics back to the rescue? beyondbrics
What the eurozone crisis might mean for emerging markets, beyondbrics
FT in depth: Euro in crisis

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.