A face mask-wearing Chinese doctor in Beijing. Photo: AFP

PRAGUE – As Beijing revs up propaganda and soft-power campaigns to portray China as a trusted partner in the fight against Covid-19, a bid to counter the mainstream narrative that it is chiefly responsible for the global pandemic, the European Union (EU) is pushing back against China’s advances.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat and foreign policy chief, recently lashed out at China’s so-called Covid-19 “politics of generosity” as a bid to sow divisions in Europe as it grapples with the disease’s rising lethal spread.

“There is a global battle of narratives going on in which timing is a crucial factor,” Borrell said in a recent statement. “China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner.

“In the battle of narratives we have also seen attempts to discredit the EU as such and some instances where Europeans have been stigmatized as if all were carriers of the virus,” Borrell’s statement on China said.  

The European External Action Service, the bloc’s foreign policy department, publishes regular updates on global “disinformation” campaigns, particularly those by government-aligned entities in China and Russia.

“There was a deep reservoir of skepticism in Brussels about the Chinese government and [the Chinese Communist Party’s] political agenda and behavior going into this,” said Andrew Small, a fellow at the Asia Program of the US-based German Marshall Fund. “Beijing’s behavior through the crisis has done as much to reinforce that skepticism as it has to mitigate it.”

Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron said it was time for “an end to naivety” over China’s interests in Europe, while the European Commission, the EU’s executive, for the first time ever described China as a “systemic rival.”

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in a file photo. Photo: AFP

Ursula von der Leyen, the EC’s president, promised that she would create a “geopolitical” commission, which many commentators saw as a mechanism to build a more assertive EU in global affairs that forged a middle way between the US-China superpower rivalry.   

How exactly the Covid-19 crisis will affect future China-EU relations, and whether the EU will break into more distinct pro- and anti-China blocs, is yet to be seen.

Von der Leyen, for her part, has publicly thanked China for sending medical supplies to virus-hit EU members, including Italy and Spain, and spoke warmly of bilateral relations after a telephone call with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on March 18.

In well-publicized instances, China has come to EU members’ rescue.

In mid-March, for instance, China announced it would send badly needed medical supplies and equipment as well as doctors experienced in dealing with the virus to Italy, the worst virus-hit EU country. That largesse included contracts for 10,000 pulmonary ventilators, two million face masks and 20,000 protective suits.

Spain, whose health system is on the brink of collapse, recently secured a US$467 million deal with China to supply 550 million masks, 5.5 million rapid test kits, 950 respirators and 11 million pairs of gloves to address shortages. The deal was agreed on March 25 in a call between Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Chinese medical volunteers are part of Beijing’s so-called “face mask” diplomacy in Europe. Photo: Facebook

Some of the medical supplies provided by China, including to Spain and the Czech Republic, have turned out to be faulty, according to reports.

At the same time, several European governments are pushing back over their countries’ dependence on China-made medical supply imports, which they say has exposed national security risks. “This crisis has showed how exposed we in Romania and in Europe are to imports from China,” Romanian Economic Minister Virgil Popescu said last week.

It’s highly unlikely now that the much-vaunted EU-China investment agreement, which both sides had hoped to sign in 2020, will be finalized because of the Covid-19 crisis. The EU-China summit that was scheduled to be held this month has been cancelled; a special summit planned for September in the German city of Leipzig is also in jeopardy.

Lucrezia Poggetti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, says that the Covid-19 outbreak is “keeping the EU and the Chinese government busy handling the public health crisis and subsequent economic repercussions, further slowing down the pace of negotiations and limiting the prospects of getting to the signature of the bilateral investment deal in 2020.”

Even before the pandemic, EU officials warned that the bloc was unwilling to sign a deal unless Beijing offered major concessions, especially in regards to intellectual property protection and equal access for European firms to China’s then thriving, now virus-hit markets.

Phil Hogan, the EU’s trade chief, said in January that “meeting halfway will not work for the EU.”

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, reckons that the Covid-19 crisis won’t fundamentally change EU-China relations.

They will, he says, remain divided over the same issues, such as China’s protectionism, its Communist Party-led authoritarian regime and its lack of respect for basic political and human rights.

They will also be divided, Cabestan added, over “China’s willingness to economically and later politically dominate the world to the detriment of the West, not only the US but also the EU, and other economically developed and politically democratic countries.”

“As far as the EU is concerned, divide and rule remains China’s basic strategy,” Cabestan said.

Conceptual image of EU and China maps. Image: Twitter.

Indeed, Brussels has long been suspicious of Beijing’s bids to sow divisions within the EU, including through a “17+1” forum that comprises China and 17 mostly EU member states from Central and Eastern Europe.

Much depends on whether the EU can now rally member states around the bloc in a time of lockdowns, border closures and economic distress. Most European governments were caught off-guard when Covid-19 cases started to spike across the continent in early March, with Italy at the early epicenter.

In a rush to contain the ensuing crisis, member states went it alone in crafting individual responses. The EU’s bodies, meanwhile, have been perceived by many as sluggish and incompetent in managing the crisis, with no clear guidance on whether Brussels should have a role in the crisis-management of its member states.

The Schengen accords, which allow borderless movement of people across most EU states and which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, have symbolically been curtailed as most members have closed their borders to contain the disease’s spread. 

In a March 12 speech, the head of the European Central Bank (ECB), Christine Lagarde, promoted the notion of individual over collective response by appearing to insinuate that the bank was not responsible for the financial impact the Covid-19 crisis has on member states.

On March 18, the ECB announced a €750 billion ($820 billion) stimulus package by purchasing the bonds of European states, in a bid to prevent further financial collapse. The lack of financial assurances, some suggest, will leave individual states open to potential China-led financial assistance and rescue deals, as presaged in Beijing’s case-by-case emergency medical supply deals.

As Europe-wide quarantines were imposed around mid-March, most EU governments were initially adulatory of China’s swift promise to help, including through offers of medical supplies, a Chinese goodwill drive some are referring to as its “face mask” diplomacy.

Aleksandar Vucic, the president of Serbia, a non-EU member, recently called European solidarity a “fairytale” while claiming that the “only ones who can help” against the Covid-19 crisis are the Chinese. That view is likely influenced by the fact Serbia is a big beneficiary of China’s Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure program.

A worker prepares to send a load of medical supplies labelled with China’s national flag. Photo: Facebook

Even EU members like the Czech Republic and Sweden, both of which saw bilateral relations with China deteriorate before the Covid-19 outbreak in January, have turned more positive in their public messaging, presumably to ensure imports of China-made medical equipment and supplies continue to flow.  

But that initial soft messaging towards China is now growing harder as perceptions rise Beijing seeks to opportunize on the EU’s crisis.

In particular, there is rising hostility towards Beijing’s propaganda that seeks to deflect and deny responsibility for the virus’ initial outbreak, as certain Chinese officials have done in crude fashion over social media.

Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, recently officially validated conspiracy theories circulated widely over Chinese social media that claim Covid-19 was engineered by the US and secretly deposited as a biological weapon by the US military in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the disease’s first epicenter.

The Chinese Embassy in Paris, for one, has parroted the myth on its official Twitter feed.

As China ramps up its anti-US propaganda, in a bald effort to steal a march in Europe, there is a new concerted effort by European leaders to stress EU solidarity and lending helping hands among member states.

Germany and France have now each sent as many face masks and medical supplies to virus-ravaged Italy as China has provided. Well-provisioned and supplied German hospitals are now opening their doors to treat Italian and French patients.

Some obsevers expect a more concerted public relations campaign in coming days and weeks to highlight pan-European solidarity. That may or may not work as Euro-skepticism appears to have risen more sharply in the pandemic’s wake, according to certain opinion polls.

Medical workers in protective gear tend to a patient (Rear R) on March 24, 2020 at the new COVID 3 level intensive care unit for coronavirus Covid-19 cases at the Casal Palocco hospital near Rome, Photo: AFP/Alberto Pizzoli

A recent survey by Monitor Italia, a pollster, found that 88% of Italians feel the EU is not helping them enough during the Covid-19 crisis. The percentage of Italians who thought EU membership is disadvantageous rose from 47% in November to 67% this month, the same survey showed.

Much will come down to economics. A European Commission report, published on March 13, asserted that the bloc’s gross domestic product (GDP) could fall at least -1% this year, down 2.4 percentage points from a forecast made last month.

China’s economic growth is also likely to tank this year, though by how much is uncertain. Last year, China saw its worst GDP growth rate in 29 years, due to the negative impacts of its supply chain-distorting trade war with the US.

While both the EU and China will be desperate to revive their economies when the crisis recedes, its not clear yet what direction bilateral ties will take.

What is clear is that US-China economic relations will deteriorate further, with US President Donald Trump insisting China take responsibility for the damage and death wrought by what he has undiplomatically referred to as the “Wuhan virus” and “China virus.”

“There are certainly areas where the politics around China’s economic involvement in Europe will be reconditioned,” predicted German Marshall Fund’s Small. The Covid-19 crisis has shown Europe the “real risks involved in taking on Chinese financing or certain forms of investment.”