Europe is in the nascent stages of a new debate about China. Last year, the European Union published a strategic outlook paper in which it labelled China as a “systemic rival”, reflecting a sharp change in its balance of assumptions about the Sino-European relationship. The pandemic is tilting that balance further. This is certainly not happening out of preference: European policymakers would rather address the urgent health and economic challenges they face with geopolitical competition largely suspended.
Pragmatic cooperation with Beijing to secure essential medical supplies remains at the top of the bilateral agenda for a number of European countries, while the need to revive shell-shocked economies will drive many of their decisions in the months ahead. But, even in the midst of the crisis, China’s attempts to exploit political and economic vulnerabilities in Europe have necessitated pushback – be it against disinformation campaigns or attempts to target strategically important economic assets.
More important, however, will be Europe’s efforts to take stock of the relationship with China in the aftermath of the crisis. A decade ago, the modest but helpful Chinese role in Europe’s sovereign debt crisis bought Beijing goodwill with leaders across the continent, influencing their China policies to this day. The current crisis is likely to have the opposite effect. Deliberations in Europe about long-term issues ranging from supply chain diversification to telecoms security will take place in an atmosphere of intensified distrust of the Chinese government, as well as greater clarity about the nature of the actor China is becoming under Xi Jinping’s leadership.
Hence, Beijing’s handling of the pandemic has changed long-standing European assumptions about its reliability as a crisis actor and its approach to the European project. For the time being, Europe’s immediate medical-supply needs and dire economic situation will limit the scope of shifts in its China policy. But, on issues ranging from supply chains to ideological competition, European governments have already rebalanced their view of what dynamics with China should look like in the aftermath. The crisis is also intensifying demands from European parliaments, media outlets, and citizens for Europe to put its China policy on a more open, accountable, and values-based footing.
The behaviour of the Chinese party-state during the crucial early weeks of the outbreak in Wuhan, and the exposure of Europe’s dependency on China for critical supplies, would have been grounds enough for a reassessment of their relationship. The manner in which Beijing has handled one of the most acute tests faced in recent times by European governments – and by the European project itself – guarantees that there will be a political reckoning. Ultimately, European governments’ pursuit of a “business as usual” approach to Beijing is growing harder to sustain.
‘The Meaning of Systemic Rivalry: Europe and China Beyond the Pandemic’ – Policy Brief by Andrew Small – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.