Frenemies Forever: COVID-19 in Europe-China Relations

Written by | Tuesday, May 5th, 2020

As Europe struggles with an existential crisis brought on by COVID-19, the complexities of its relations with China are on full display. While the crisis itself is unprecedented in many ways, it is also the first time that China has figured so prominently on an issue of such immediately critical importance to European citizens, governments, and the European project more broadly. As such, China has become a conspicuous part of public and policy debates around COVID-19 across much of the continent. The way that relations with China evolve over the course of the current crisis, and the debate around these relations, will more than likely have a lasting effect on the Europe-China relationship, long after the crisis has subsided.

Before the crisis hit, relations with China had already grown more complex. What were largely commercially-driven relations a decade ago have now become more diverse, more (geo)political and more contested, as China’s interests in Europe have grown considerably and China itself has become more competitive and more globally ambitious. Just over one year ago, in March 2019, the European Commission and the External Action Service characterized China as a partner, a competitor and a systemic rival. The developments during the still evolving health and increasingly also economic crisis attest to the veracity of this multi-faceted formula when it comes to Europe’s relations with China on and around COVID-19.

This was already supposed to be a defining year for Europe-China relations. Critical decisions are slated to be made on questions such as 5G licensing rules in Europe and a bilateral investment agreement between China and the EU, while in September, 27 European heads of state and government are meant to sit down, for the first time collectively, with their Chinese counterpart in Leipzig, Germany. Now, 2020 is shaping up to be decisive on an even broader range of issues. This is all important also in light of the recent media reports that have revealed the pressures that China has placed on EU officials during the crisis, which also serve to highlight frictions within the EU over how to approach China.

The Covid-19 crisis has hit at a time when debates over the need to adopt more coherent strategies towards China have been emerging across Europe. In many ways, the current crisis has become a catalyst for a number of trends that have been shaping Europe-China relations in recent years, while in other ways it has turned the tables. It has simultaneously brought Europe and China into closer cooperation, pushed them further apart, and seemingly underlined the fractures that exist within Europe on how to approach an increasingly influential China.

Many European countries were quick to organize support for China as the coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, with EU officials noting aid deliveries of over 50 tonnes of medical supplies in January. Europe’s messaging at the time was largely muted, according to reports, out of respect for Chinese requests to maintain a low profile. In turn, Chinese assistance has arrived from multiple sources, including various levels of the Chinese government, state-owned enterprises, private companies, foundations, as well as connections resulting from local Chinese communities in Europe. In many instances, there is also a correlation between Chinese companies with commercial interests in the country and donations from these companies, as noted in the cases of Greece, Hungary, Italy, Portugal and Spain, for instance. There are also notable similarities across a number of countries, where aid provided from China has been accompanied by messages tailored to local audiences – be they celebrated Portuguese poets or the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.

China has organized a number of video conferences with governments and health experts across Europe to share information about its experiences in fighting COVID-19, particularly related to medical and scientific aspects of combating the virus. While aid and “mask diplomacy” has been a key feature of the discussion, it is important to note that commercial deliveries of medical supplies from China have far exceeded aid volumes. While instances of defective supplies from China have also entered the discussion, this does not seem to have fundamentally altered the debate. Privileged access to Chinese suppliers as a result of high-level political contacts or “strategic partnerships” has also become a talking point for many European national governments, from Germany to Poland to the Czech Republic. Moreover, Chinese embassies and ambassadors across Europe have become highly visible, both on social media and in traditional media, as the COVID-19 crisis has expanded across the continent.

While China’s increasingly proactive public diplomacy is widespread, and there appears to be a relative degree of consistency in messaging, there is a diversity in method that ranges from low key (see Latvia or Romania) to charm offensive (see Poland, Portugal, Italy or Spain) to provocative or aggressive (see Sweden, Germany or France). The degree of variation is worth considering further. Could this be due, for instance, to different styles or ways of thinking within the Chinese foreign ministry or Party-state apparatus more broadly, or does it reflect a consciously constructed approach formulated on a reading of target audiences and the state of bilateral relations with each country? Meanwhile, some countries (for example France and Germany) have pushed back on the more provocative elements of China’s messaging by summoning the Chinese ambassador and/or making public statements that serve to challenge the Chinese narrative. The cases of Italy and the Czech Republic are illustrative of how, in some countries in Europe, relations with China have become an important, even divisive topic of political debate. Still, these cases do not appear to be the rule across Europe, or at least not yet.

Already, China’s assistance in fighting COVID-19, particularly in early to mid-March, as the virus was breaking out on the continent, was seen by some to provide a stark contrast to the inaction and lack of unity within Europe at the time. It is not the first time that China has been used as a domestic political lever against the European project and it is likely that it will not be the last. In Portugal, for instance, COVID-19 has served to highlight Europe’s North-South divide in the minds of many, giving a sense of “de?ja?-vu” from the saga that resulted from the 2008 financial crisis. At the same time, COVID-19 has also sparked xenophobia and anti-Chinese sentiment in Europe as well that could further drive right-wing populist narratives.

In effect, China’s actions towards Europe in this time of crisis and disagreements within Europe over how to manage relations with Beijing, could further amplify the fractures across the continent. At the same time, it cannot be excluded that, as time wears on, China will prove a catalyst for the emergence of a more “geopolitical Europe”. As China has recently been a spark for common European initiatives on issues such as investment screening, 5G and industrial policy, it could also prove to be an external factor in fuelling collective European action in a post-COVID-19 world.

‘Covid-19 in Europe-China Relations’ – Special Report by John Seaman, Marc Julienne and a Team of Authors – European Think-Tank Network on China (ETNC) – Institut français des relations internationales / IFRI.

The Special Report can be downloaded here

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