It’s complicated: China-Europe relations hit by diversity, distrust and dogmatism during pandemic
As Beijing steps up its pressure campaign on Europe in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, their relations look set to become more diverse and contested amid growing distrust and wariness of China’s expanding influence, according to new research.
The study, based on analysis of China’s role in 19 European countries’ handling of the coronavirus crisis, showed that Europe remained largely divided over how to deal with Beijing, which has figured ever more prominently in policy and public debates in many parts of the continent.
A total of 28 experts from 21 think tanks across the continent, collectively known as the European Think-tank Network on China, were involved in the research.
It came on the heels of a diplomatic debacle in the past week that saw the European Union reportedly bowing to pressure by China. The EU reportedly toned down part of a report documenting Beijing’s disinformation efforts to deflect the blame and rewrite the global coronavirus narrative.
Although a spokesperson for the EU denied those allegations, the saga has “moreover revealed the pressures that China has placed on European Union officials during the crisis”, according to John Seaman, editor of the report and a research fellow at the French Institute of International Relations.
In a phone call on Wednesday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen shrugged off concerns about their discord and vowed to boost the fight against the virus and boost economic recovery, according to Xinhua.
According to Seaman, the Covid-19 crisis hit at a time when traditionally trade-driven China-EU relations had grown more complex and competitive after the European Commission said for the first time last year that Beijing was a systemic rival.
“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,” he said in the report.
“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.”
A growing number of European countries, including Sweden and Britain, have joined the United States and Australia in calling for an international inquiry into China’s handling of the pandemic. Leaders from Germany and France have also pressed Beijing for greater transparency about the origin of the deadly virus.
The European think tanks’ report was also focused on China’s unusually aggressive coronavirus diplomacy, with Chinese embassies and ambassadors shifting the blame on to Western democracies and promoting Beijing’s messaging “with varying degrees of dogmatism, divisiveness and moderation” on Twitter and in traditional media.
“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 (Latvia or Romania) to charm offensive (Poland, Portugal, Italy or Spain) to provocative or aggressive (Sweden, Germany or France),” the report said.
It examined China’s much-touted medical aid and “mask diplomacy” and found “a correlation between Chinese companies with commercial interests in the country and donations from these companies” in countries including Greece, Hungary, Italy, Portugal and Spain.
Many countries have pushed back against China’s diplomatic overreach and its preferred narrative that has served to “[underline] the apparent successes of its autocratic governance model, ignoring its clear downfalls in managing the crisis initially, while sowing doubt on the effectiveness of liberal democracies”, according to Seaman.
While the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned of Beijing’s geopolitical game to expand its influence through spinning and “politics of generosity”, countries such as Germany and Sweden have moved to tighten investment screening, 5G and industrial policies targeting Chinese firms.
Zhang Ming, China’s top envoy to the EU, last week dismissed the concerns about China’s alleged ploy to use the vulnerabilities of other countries to advance China’s geopolitical interests, such as with the country’s embattled tech giant Huawei and the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
“Disinformation is our common enemy and we need to make joint efforts to eradicate it,” Zhang said, claiming China had been a victim of unspecified disinformation campaigns.
The report also noted that China’s actions towards Europe in times of crisis looked set to amplify the fractures across the continent and prompt further debates about the need for a coherent EU strategy on China.
A poll of more than 12,000 people across the 28 EU member countries by German think tank Bertelsmann Stiftung in September last year showed 45 per cent of Europeans saw China as a competitor while only 9 per cent believed their countries shared the same political interests or values with China.
Another survey of 16 European countries released by the Pew Research Centre in December also showed the continent remained deeply divided over how to approach China.
While people in most of western Europe and some of Central and Eastern Europe, such as Slovak and Czech, saw China negatively, 51 per cent in Greece had a positive view of China and those in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Bulgaria and Lithuania tended to see China more favourably.