However, China’s actions since the start of the pandemic have not led to the conclusion in Brussels that now is the time for Europe to catch a cold in China.
Despite allegations of early detection of the disease, dissemination of misinformation and controversial “masked diplomacy” – through which the Chinese state exported medical supplies such as masks and dresses when the virus struck Europe in hopes of gaining public relations, although This has affected some cases – many personalities from both the Member States and the EU institutions have told CNN that the outbreak has indeed consolidated the reality that co-operation with China is more important than ever. These sources were not authorized to speak on the spot about the policy that has not yet been approved.
The logic goes something like this: the EU’s current priorities are managing its restoration by the corona, both economically and strategically. to become a serious geopolitical player; to strengthen the European economy; and to be a world leader in the climate crisis.
It is widely accepted in Brussels that the expansion of relations with China plays a role in each of these. Officials believe the Chinese commitment is necessary for people to understand the virus and learn the right lessons from the outbreak. China’s vast wealth and willingness to invest is clearly a very attractive prospect for troubled EU economies. If the climate crisis is ever to be controlled, a good place to start is the biggest polluter in the world. And following a cautious path between the US and China, Europe is creating a unique role for the international scene, giving it diplomatic autonomy from Washington.
However, the pandemic also drew attention to other issues concerning China that European leaders were willing to overlook, including the imprisonment of up to a million mainly Muslim Uighurs in the western Xinjiang region, industrial espionage and repression. democracy in Hong Kong.
Unfortunately, this reminder came a few months before the scheduled meeting of the EU and China at a summit in September to consolidate their future relationship. Perhaps honestly, Covid-19 postponed this meeting.
“The pandemic was a wake-up call for member states sleeping toward China’s summit in September, blinded by the brilliance of Chinese money,” said Steven Blockmans, foreign policy chief at the Center for European Policy Studies. “The cover-up in Wuhan and the spread of misinformation have undermined China’s position on how reliable a partner can be for Europe.”
This puts Europe in a tight spot. On the one hand, it must work with Beijing. on the other hand, it must better acknowledge that China is a systemic adversary that it cannot fully trust. At present, the EU maintains this position.
“We need a complex relationship with China. It is both a partner and an adversary,” said a senior European diplomat who has no authority to formulate a position that has not been adopted by the EU as a whole.
Europe and China have become closer in the last three decades, and both sides have found it impossible to ignore the lure of each other’s economic power. As China could grow after the economic crisis, Chinese money seemed even more attractive to European economies. And while cooperation with Beijing has always posed security risks and disagreements on fundamental issues of democracy, the benefit has been deemed highly worthwhile.
While the EU sees its complex position in China as a diplomatic advantage, it risks tangling issues with two of its closest allies in the near future: the United Kingdom and the United States.
Last year, the Boris Johnson government controversially agreed that Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei could build up to 35% of the UK’s 5G infrastructure, despite enormous pressure from Washington.
At the time, the debate was over whether or not to leave the British vulnerable to Chinese espionage. “From the UK’s point of view, the 5G is no longer just a risk management debate, but part of a broader geopolitical issue,” said Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former British foreign minister. Rifkind believes that China’s foreign policy chief was “threatening countries that do not comply with China’s view of how it should behave” and that governments now “cannot simply divide their behavior in Covid, Hong Cong and the Uighurs who are imprisoned. “
Huawei’s decision is under consideration, and a senior British official familiar with the audit process told CNN that “it is fair to say that it does not look good to Huawei.” The employee is not allowed to speak on the disc.
The United Kingdom has also adopted a highly consistent line in Hong Kong, saying it will provide a path to citizenship for millions of Hong Kong as China prepares to impose a draconian new law on national security in the city.
Of course, this shift to London is seen as a huge victory for the Chinese hawks in Washington, who, under President Donald Trump, have turned the screws since 2016. And with the UK now in its corner, the US will we could be encouraged to hit China harder.
“It will be difficult for the EU to ignore US calls for sanctions and disconnection,” Blockmans said. “It simply came to our notice then [the US] the election is over. But if the next government adopts secondary sanctions, as Trump did with Iran, the EU will have to find new ways to protect its autonomy in international affairs. “
This autonomy is still incredibly valuable for the EU. “There is a clear willingness of the EU not to become a tool of US diplomacy and to find our own way to deal with China,” said the EU diplomat. However, the diplomat acknowledges also that Brussels could not act with the same degree of “naivety” that occurred after the eurozone crisis, when devastating European economies welcomed both direct Chinese investment and the acquisition of failed companies – and Europe opened its markets without ensures, among other things, security guarantees. “
Four EU officials have privately admitted that they regret not being more aggressive with China. “We are the number one market in the world and we must now use it as a lever when dealing with China,” said an EU diplomat involved in Brussels’ foreign policy.
Blockmans believes they could go even further and use assets such as the EU’s lucrative single market and the laws governing access to it as a lever in the negotiations: “The Union must expand its global strategy and use more strongly international and Community law to defend its interests and promote security goals for both China and the United States. ”
This is very likely to be very complicated. Nevertheless, the EU’s main international goal remains to balance its relations between the US and China by cooperating with the latter – which it admits is a systemic adversary – with the risk of infuriating the former. This would be difficult for any world power to take off. When you remember that the EU is made up of 27 member states, which have all the same rights to this issue, it has the potential to explode.
At present, all Member States are in about the same place, agreeing that Chinese commitment is necessary, but it must be done more carefully in reality, China is a systemic adversary.
But a game after the pandemic of class pointing the finger at China could turn some states into bigger hawks, while the propaganda propaganda of a pro-China narrative has already proved effective in more Eurosceptic nations. Beijing has historically been good at choosing member states that are sympathetic to the Chinese position, especially the less affluent states of Eastern Europe and the populist governments in Italy and Austria.
If thinking between Member States begins to separate in the coming months, wigs in Brussels may need to put their aspirations on the ice for a while.