by André Francischetti Moreno
The European Union’s concerns with its commercial relations with China have been gaining new dimensions with the ongoing Coronavirus crisis. Sino-European partnership goes from the political to the economic realm, encompassing environmental policies and debates about human rights. The global pandemic and the need to strengthen the Chinese image in the National Assembly, in Beijing, pushed China to an aggressive diplomacy style that is causing tension amidst European actors.
While many countries still struggle with the devastating effects of the COVID-19 crisis, China seems to be recovering quickly, at least for now. Pragmatic cooperation with Beijing regarding medical supplies and assistance is indeed at the top of the Sino-European agenda, nevertheless, Xi Jinping is also taking the height of the crisis as an opportunity to exploit political and economic vulnerabilities in Europe.
At the beginning of the crisis, when countries like Italy and Spain were hit hard by the high number of infections, the European Union was divided on how to deal with the situation. The lack of action by the EU and the lack of solidarity among EU members not only caused a new wave of Euroscepticism to arise but gave China space to offer essential medical support that was urgently needed. Xi Jinping raised the notion of building a “Health Silk Road” while talking to the Italian PM Giuseppe Comte, in what many specialists would interpret as one of the many soft power victories China is striking in Europe.
The escalating tensions in the Sino-Indian border, Hong Kong, South and East China seas, increasing investments in nuclear weapons able to reach many NATO members, violation of human rights regarding the Uyghur minority and disinformation campaigns attempted the European Union to an aggressive Chinese diplomacy style and its inability to stand up to it. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell highlighted Beijing’s advances to play on the differences between Europeans. It is not news that Chinese investments in Europe have repeatedly blocked EU statements criticizing Beijing’s actions, as it was the case of Hungary and Greece rejecting a declaration against Chinese actions in the South China sea. However, in the past months, China tried to intervene in the European information network. In April, for example, Beijing pressured Brussels to modify the wording of the EU’s report on disinformation. Along with, the China Daily, under the influence of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, required the EU ambassador to delete a sentence declaring that the outbreak of the pandemic happened in China as a condition to publish a Sino-European relations celebration text (co-written by him and 27 EU ambassadors). The modification was accepted by the EU delegation, causing a fierce opposition in Europe. Also in this period, the Chinese embassy in France accused French care workers of abandoning elderly patients to starve and die. This type of declarations about the mismanagement of European countries toward the crisis and the spread of fake news led the European Commission Vice-President, Vera Jourova, to say that, “Foreign actors and certain third countries, in particular Russia and China, have engaged in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns around COVID-19 in the EU, its neighborhood and globally, seeking to undermine democratic debate and exacerbate social polarization, and improve their image in the COVID-19 context.”
In Europe, the last word in foreign affairs still rests on national governments, so that it remains difficult to present a united front against or in favor of foreign actors in many matters. Knowing that different European countries face different types of pressure, it is important to hold an open yet watchful posture toward foreign investments in companies that are key to the national interest and security. In the Sino-European case, for example, China is a relevant partner in climate change policies, the EU’s biggest source of imports, and its second-biggest export market. Particularly, China holds many investments in Europe, buying for instance stakes in many airports, ports, and relevant industrial companies. Most of these are made by private actors, thus representing no political harm. However, several private actors are subsidized by the Chinese government, causing unfair competition to European companies, and raising concern that some of these actors may be influenced by the Chinese government.
All in all, it is as desirable that the European Union stands for an open trade relationship with China as it is to combat Beijing’s protectionism and aggressive diplomacy. Some ways to do that is by balancing Chinese investments and demanding (as well as showing on the EU’s behalf) transparency. In June, the European Commission presented a package of tools to protect the European business fabric, such as engines to control the purchase of European companies by foreign parties (mainly those who receive state support). Nevertheless, a recurrent problem came up again: the EU Member States are also in competition with each other, and the approval of such tools is still uncertain.
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