The Covid-19 pandemic has kick started a difficult global conversation about whether Western liberal democracies should radically rethink their relationships with China, an authoritarian regime upon whom many of these nations’ economies rely.
This has been especially confronting for the European Union, which has spent the past few years actively seeking greater engagement and cooperation with Beijing, with the ultimate goal of smoother two-way investment and access to one another’s considerable markets.
At a glance, an EU-China reset looks simple enough. Despite the bloc’s move towards China, the transatlantic relationship is the cornerstone of the United States-led Western order. A European pause on the current talks with China to take stock of what’s happened and what European priorities might be post-Covid, while economically costly, could be wise. It would also be welcome and popular in Washington.
However, China’s actions since the pandemic began have not led to the conclusion in Brussels that now is the time for Europe to go cold on China.
Despite accusations of covering up the disease early on, spreading misinformation and its controversial “masked diplomacy” – through which the Chinese state exported medical supplies like masks and gowns when the virus hit Europe in the hope of a public relations win, though this backfired in some instances – multiple figures from both member states and EU institutions told CNN that the outbreak has actually cemented the reality that engagement with China is more essential than ever. These sources were not authorised to speak on the record about policy yet to be adopted.
The logic goes something like this: the EU’s current priorities are managing its recovery from coronavirus, both economically and strategically; becoming a serious geopolitical player; strengthening Europe’s economy; and being a world leader on the climate crisis.
It’s widely accepted in Brussels that expanding relations with China plays into each of these. Officials believe that Chinese engagement is essential if the world is to understand the virus and learn the right lessons from the outbreak. China’s vast wealth and willingness to invest is obviously a very attractive prospect to struggling EU economies.
If the climate crisis is ever going to be brought under control, a good place to start is the world’s largest polluter. And by treading a careful path between the US and China, Europe creates a unique role for itself on the international stage, giving it diplomatic autonomy from Washington.
However, the pandemic has also refocused attention on other issues involving China that European leaders had been willing to overlook, including the incarceration of up to a million predominately Muslim Uyghurs in the country’s western Xinjiang region, industrial espionage and the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong.
Inconveniently, this reminder has come just months before the EU and China were scheduled to meet at a centrepiece summit in September to cement their future relationship. Perhaps mercifully, Covid-19 has postponed that meeting.
“The pandemic has been a wake up call for member states that were sleepwalking towards the China summit in September, blinded by the shine of Chinese money,” said Steven Blockmans, head of foreign policy at the Centre for European Policy Studies. “The coverup in Wuhan and spreading misinformation has undermined China’s position as to how reliable a partner it can possibly be for Europe.”
This puts Europe in a tight spot. On one hand, it must engage with Beijing; on the other, it must more adequately acknowledge that China is a systemic rival that cannot be fully trusted. For the time being, the EU is sticking with this position.
“By necessity, we have a complicated relationship with China. It is both a partner and a rival,” said a senior European diplomat who was not authorised to articulate a position that has not been adopted by the whole EU.
Europe and China have grown closer over the past three decades, as both sides found the lure of the other’s economic power impossible to ignore. As China’s might grew after the economic crash, Chinese money looked even more attractive to European economies. And while cooperation with Beijing always came with security risks and disagreements on fundamental issues of democracy, the benefit was largely deemed to be worth it.
While the EU sees its complex position on China as a diplomatic advantage, it risks complicating matters 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 the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei could build up to 35% of the UK’s 5G infrastructure, despite huge pressure from Washington.
At the time, the debate was about whether or not it left Britons vulnerable to Chinese espionage. “From a UK point of view, 5G is no longer a conversation purely about managing risk, but part of a wider geopolitical issue,” said Sir Malcolm Rifkind a former British Foreign Secretary.
Rifkind believes that China’s chief foreign policy has been to “threaten countries who do not conform to China’s view on how it should behave,” and that governments now “can’t just divorce their behaviour on Covid, on Hong Kong and on Uighurs incarcerated.”
The Huawei decision is currently under review and a senior British official familiar with the review process told CNN it’s “fair to say it doesn’t look good for Huawei.” The official was not permitted to speak on the record.
The UK has also taken an extremely firm line on Hong Kong, saying that it will provide a path to citizenship to millions of Hong Kongers as China prepares to impose a draconian new national security law on the city.
Of course, this shift in London is being seen a huge win by China hawks in Washington, who, under the guidance of President Donald Trump, have been turning the screws since 2016. And with the UK now in its corner, the US might well be emboldened to hit China harder.
“It will be difficult for the EU to ignore US calls for sanctions and de-coupling,” said Blockmans.
“Governments will try to ride it out until [the US] election is over. But if the next administration adopts secondary sanctions as Trump did with Iran, the EU will have to find new ways to protect its autonomy on international affairs.”This autonomy is still incredibly precious to the EU.
“There is a clear willingness of the EU not to become a tool of US diplomacy and find our own way of dealing with China,” said the EU diplomat. However, the diplomat also acknowledges that Brussels cannot afford to act with the same degree of “naivety” it did in the aftermath of the eurozone crisis, when battered European economies welcomed both direct Chinese investment and its acquisition of failing companies – and Europe opened its “markets without securing guarantees on security among other things.”
“I think with Covid we might be getting closer to a common European understanding of what China is and how it behaves,” said Lucrezia Poggetti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies.
“The Chinese government’s behaviour in times of crisis raised eyebrows in Europe with its attempts to play European countries against each other and undermine democracies, for example through disinformation. And as it becomes more prominent in national political debates, Europeans might come to a deeper understanding of China,”he added.
Four EU officials privately admitted that they regret not being more assertive with China. “We are the number one market in the world and we must now use that as leverage when dealing with China,” said one EU diplomat involved in Brussels’ foreign policy explained.
Blockmans thinks they could go further still and use assets like the EU’s lucrative single market and the laws that oversee access to it as leverage in negotiations: “The Union should broaden its global strategy and use international and EU law more adroitly to defend its interests and advance its security objectives towards both China and the US.”
This is all likely to get very complicated. Despite everything, the EU’s chief international objective remains to balance its relations between the US and China by engaging with the latter – which it admits is a systemic rival – at the risk of enraging the former. This would be difficult for any world power to pull off. When you remember the EU is made up of 27 member states, all of whom have equal say on this matter, it has the potential to blow up.
For now, all member states are roughly in the same place, agreeing that Chinese engagement is essential but should be done with greater attention paid to the reality China is a systemic rival.
But a post-pandemic blame game pointing the finger at China could turn some states into bigger hawks, while propaganda spreading a pro-China narrative has already proven effective in more Euroskeptic nations.
Beijing has historically been good at picking off member states that are sympathetic to the Chinese position, most notably the less wealthy Eastern European states and the populist governments in Italy and Austria.
If thinking among the member states does start to drift apart in the coming months, the bigwigs in Brussels might need to put their ambitions on ice for a little while.