However, China’s actions since the pandemic began have not led to the conclusion in Brussels that now is the time for Europe to place itself coldly on China.
Despite accusations of covering up the disease early, the spread of misinformation and its controversial “masked diplomacy” – through which the Chinese state exported medical supplies such as masks and dresses when the virus hit Europe in hopes of winning victory in public, though upset in some cases – More data from member states and EU institutions told CNN that the epidemic has actually reinforced the reality that engagement with China is more important than ever before. These sources were not authorized to speak of a policy record that had not yet been adopted.
The logic goes like this: the EU’s current priorities are managing coronavirus recovery, economically and strategically; becomes a serious geopolitical player; strengthening the European economy; and as a world leader in the climate crisis.
It is widely accepted in Brussels that expanding relations with China plays into each of them. Officials believe Chinese engagement is essential if the world is to understand the virus and learn the real lessons from the epidemic. China’s enormous wealth and willingness to invest is clearly a very attractive prospect for fighting EU economies. If the climate crisis is ever to be brought under control, a good place to start is the biggest polluter in the world. Following a careful path between the US and China, Europe is creating a unique role for itself on the international stage, giving it diplomatic autonomy from Washington.
However, the pandemic also focused on other issues involving China that European leaders were willing to overlook, including the arrest of up to a million predominantly Muslim Uighurs in the western region of Xinjiangb, industrial espionage and the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong.
Inconveniently, this reminder arrived just months before the EU and China were scheduled to meet at a central summit in September to cement their future relations. Perhaps graciously, Covid-19 postponed that meeting.
“The pandemic was a wake-up call to member states that fell asleep towards a summit in China in September, blinded by the glow of Chinese money,” said Steven Blockmans, head of foreign policy at the Center for European Political Studies. “Covering up Wuhan and spreading misinformation has undermined China’s position on how reliable a partner it can be for Europe.”
This puts Europe in a tight spot. On the one hand, it must cooperate with Beijing; on the other hand, it must more adequately acknowledge that China is a systemic rival that cannot be fully trusted. The EU is currently holding this position.
“As needed, we have a complex relationship with China. It is both a partner and a rival,” said a senior European diplomat who is not authorized to draft a position that has not been adopted by the entire EU.
Europe and China have become closer in the last three decades, as both sides felt it was impossible to ignore the mother of someone else’s economic power. As China was able to grow after the economic downturn, Chinese money looked even more attractive to European economies. And while cooperation with Beijing has always come with security risks and inconsistencies in the fundamental issues of democracy, the benefits were considered to be largely worthwhile.
Although the EU sees its complex position vis-à-vis China as a diplomatic advantage, it risks complicating issues with two of its closest allies in the near future: the United Kingdom and the United States.
Last year, Boris Johnson’s government controversially agreed that Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei could build up to 35% of Britain’s 5G infrastructure, despite enormous pressure from Washington.
There was then a debate about whether it left the British vulnerable to Chinese espionage or not. “From a UK perspective, 5G is no longer a conversation solely about risk management, but is part of a broader geopolitical issue,” said Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former British Foreign Secretary. Rifkind believes China’s main foreign policy has “threatened countries that don’t fit into China’s stance on how to behave,” and that governments now “can’t just separate their behavior toward Covid, Hong Kong and Uighurs in prison.”
The decision on Huawei is currently being reconsidered, and a senior British official familiar with the review process told CNN it was “fair to say it doesn’t look good for Huawei.” The officer was not allowed to speak on the recording.
The UK has also taken an extremely firm line towards Hong Kong, saying it will provide a path to citizenship for millions of Hong Kongers as China prepares to prepare a draconian new national security law for the city.
Of course, this change in London is being experienced by the huge victory of the Chinese Hawks in Washington, who, under the leadership of President Donald Trump, have been turning the bolts since 2016. And if the UK is in its corner now, the US might be empowered to hit China harder.
“It is difficult for the EU to ignore US calls for sanctions and separation,” Blockmans said. “Governments will try to solve them as long as [the US] the elections are over. But if the next administration adopts secondary sanctions like Trump did with Iran, the EU will have to find new ways to protect its autonomy in international affairs. “
That autonomy is still incredibly valuable for the EU. “There is a clear readiness of the EU not to become a tool of American diplomacy and find its own way of dealing with China,” the EU diplomat said. However, the diplomat also acknowledges that Brussels cannot afford to act with the same degree of “naivety” it had after the eurozone crisis, when devastated European economies welcomed Chinese direct investment as well as its acquisition of failing companies – and Europe opened up to its “markets without providing security guarantees among other things”.
Four EU officials have privately admitted that they regret not being sent to China. “We are the number one market in the world and now we have to use that as an influence in doing business with China,” said one EU diplomat involved in Brussels’ foreign policy.
Blockmans thinks they could go further and use tools such as the EU’s lucrative single market and the laws that control access to it as an influence in the negotiations: advance its security goals towards both China and the United States. ”
This is probably very complicated. Nevertheless, the EU’s main international goal remains to balance its relations between the US and China, engaging with the latter – which it acknowledges as a systematic rival – at the risk of anger. It would be difficult for any world power to withdraw. When you remember that the EU is made up of 27 member states, all of which have the same views on the issue, the potential will fall apart.
For now, all member states are roughly in the same place and have agreed that Chinese engagement is essential, but this needs to be done with more attention to reality. China is a systemic rival.
But a post-pandemic blaming game pointing the finger at China could turn some states into bigger falcons, while propaganda spreading a pro-Chinese narrative has already proven effective in more Eurosceptic states. Beijing has historically been good at selecting member states that are sympathetic to China’s position, most notably the less affluent Eastern European states and populist governments in Italy and Austria.
If thinking among Member States starts to go away in the coming months, big wigs in Brussels might need to put their ambitions on ice for a while.