European Council President Charles Michel, right, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, left, speak at a media briefing in Brussels. Photo: AFP / Yves Herman

Away from the incendiary rhetoric of Sino-American diplomacy, there is the shrill sound of another potential confrontation.

But this time it involves China’s relationship with the European Union.

Harmony between these two vast trading blocs has become strained in the past six months. A virtual summit earlier this week failed to ease the tension.

Controversial issues such as cyberattacks, Covid-19 transparency, predatory practices and the highly-contentious Hong Kong security law were obvious stumbling blocks.

“The ongoing pandemic is a double-edged sword for China-EU relations. It has laid bare the existing differences between the two but also revealed where they need each other on the path of future development,” Cui Hongjian, the director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, said.

“The commitment to ensuring cooperation outweighs differences, but the contribution to global stability and prosperity all depends on whether China and the EU can agree on a diplomatic agenda and reboot their cooperation when the outbreak begins to ease up,” he wrote in a commentary, entitled China-EU at Crossroads, for China-US Focus, a website for academics.

Media reaction after the video talks illustrated the divide between Beijing and the 27-nation European project.

State-controlled English language newspaper China Daily beamed, “Xi conveys to EU message of partnership.” The People’s Daily-owned Global Times ran the headline, “China, EU seek to inject momentum in recovery.”

In response, Deutsche Welle, or DW, highlighted festering wounds. The German public broadcaster reported, “EU chiefs press China on trade, Hong Kong security law.”

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France 24, the state-run global news network, continued the theme with “China, EU exchange threats over proposed new security law in Hong Kong.”

“We expressed our great concerns about the proposed security law,” European Council President Charles Michel told a media briefing on Monday.

Reacting to his comments, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Luton warned the EU to stop meddling in China’s “domestic affairs.”

But the problems run much deeper than Hong Kong. Chinese cyberattacks and an “online disinformation” campaign about the Covid-19 pandemic were raised by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Indeed, there was no disguising the magnitude of Beijing’s perceived antics.

“We have seen cyber attacks on hospitals and dedicated computing centers. Likewise, we’ve seen a rise [in] online disinformation, and we pointed out clearly that this cannot be tolerated,” von der Leyen told a press conference.

Trade discussions were also fraught with calls from the EU to level the playing field. 

“We continue to have an unbalanced trade and investment relationship,” von der Leyen said, adding that China needed to conclude negotiations on a wide-ranging agreement.

Last year, the EU labeled the world’s second-largest economy as a “systemic rival.” Patience is now in short supply. And with Sino-American ties in pieces, President Xi can not afford to alienate the European bloc.

Still, his move for “a more stable and mature relationship” rings hollow in light of the bullying “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy which has angered key EU members such as France and Germany.

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“Both sides should make sure they work to reach a new contract for cooperation on condition that such cooperation is not premised on changing the fundamental political system of the other party,” Cui, of the China Institute of International Studies, said.

“They should harness measures to turn political confrontation into [a] technical competition and foster the concept of competition-for-cooperation, rather than competition-instead-of-cooperation … in a time of seismic change,” he added.

As concerns increase about the splintering of globalization, the EU has tried to walk a fine line with “cracks in transatlantic relations growing and tensions between Washington and Beijing rising.”

Those challenges were spelt out by the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.

“China remains a priority under [Germany’s] rotating presidency of the EU. In a draft of a strategy paper for its six months at the helm, [Berlin] said China would have to show more ‘reciprocity,’ presumably in areas like market access, and the EU better pursue its ‘interests and values’ … bold words after China’s moves to quell the protests in Hong Kong,” it said.

“[But] it is unlikely that the EU will follow the more antagonistic approach of the US [with EU Foreign Affairs High Representative Josep] Borrell publishing a post in which he put forward the idea of a ‘Sinatra Doctrine’ with which Europe could find its own way,” the Mercator Institute added.

For China, harmony with the EU will involve a ballad of compromises.