Europe’s relationship with China is now one of mistrust and hostility
At the start of the pandemic, Europe and China helped one other. Then the mood changed.
As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, relations between the People’s Republic of China, the West and Europe are undergoing a profound transformation, characterised by mistrust and, in some cases, open hostility.
The pandemic’s origins in Wuhan, Chinese secrecy about its evolution, and what has been called China’s newly aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy (after a patriotic, Chinese blockbuster film) have accelerated a chill in Sino-European relations that started before the crisis.
But as noted by the European Think-tank Network on China on April 29th: “It is important to note that commercial deliveries of medical supplies from China have far exceeded aid volumes.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Europe helped China. Then China helped Europe. In February, France sent 17 tonnes of medical supplies to Wuhan, including 560,000 face masks. A month later, China dispatched a “solidarity freight” of one million masks and 10,000 protection suits to Paris. The French health ministry said France subsequently ordered “close to two billion” masks from China.
French commentators initially praised the ability of China’s autocratic regime to impose such a draconian lockdown. But the French mood changed in late March, says Marc Julienne, China researcher at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI). The French found Trump’s allegations of Chinese influence over the WHO convincing, says Julienne. They were skeptical of the low fatality figures reported by China, suspicious of Beijing’s “mask diplomacy”, and outraged by Ambassador Lu’s outbursts.
Chinese officials routinely accuse the West of attacking China to hide their own ineptitude in fighting the pandemic. “It wouldn’t have come to this if westerners had been more successful in stopping the epidemic,” Lu told L’Opinion.
“Xi Jinping wants to impose his narrative of how victorious, glorious, heroic China defeated the virus,” says Françoise Nicolas, director of the Asia Centre at IFRI. “I don’t think he can win this one. It’s too crude, blatant and clumsy. It’s over-confident and aggressive.” Before the pandemic, there was already a widespread belief that China wanted to rule the world, Nicolas says.
President Macron has called Beijing’s trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative to build Chinese roads, ports and industrial centres around the world “hegemonic”.
The think tank network report on Europe-China relations says the pandemic has “simultaneously brought Europe and China into closer cooperation and pushed them further apart”.
The crisis has amplified divisions between countries desperate for Chinese aid, such as Italy and Spain, and those like France, Germany and Sweden, who see Chinese behaviour as provocative and aggressive.
In March 2019, the EU publicly labelled China a “strategic rival” for the first time. Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Josep Borrell, the representative for foreign affairs, have made repeated statements about the need for greater transparency on the part of China, and for the EU to protect itself from China.
With €700 billion in annual trade pre-pandemic, mutual dependence between China and Europe will not disappear. But interaction will be more difficult after the crisis.
“Until now, we let the Chinese walk all over us,” says Françoise Nicolas. “Now the Chinese are more assertive, and we are more wary. This has laid the basis for a tense and complex relationship, on both sides.”
Read the full article on The Irish Times.