Europe and China were well on their way to a reset. Coronavirus has changed all this

A summit hosted by Germany's Angela Merkel with EU leaders and China's Xi Jinping is scheduled to take place in Leipzig this September.

At a peak summit in September, the two will make a significant step forward in their economic and strategic relationships. At least that was the plan.

China’s response to covid-19 left a bitter taste for European officials. From draconian repressions on their citizens a dissemination allegations disinformation in Europe, this crisis has reminded that a greater commitment with China involves risks.

At present, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to bring together EU leaders and Chinese President Xi Jinping in the German city of Leipzig on 14 September.

German diplomats say the place was selected because of the historical relations of former East Germany with China. They say that Merkel, presiding over the presidency of the Council of the EU for the last time in her chancellery, was personally invested in the success of the summit.

Indeed, bringing China closer to Europe’s human rights, climate change and multilateralism values ​​is the kind of thing that the leaders’ legacies are made of. And while the Leipzig Summit is far from being a moment of rupture or rupture in Europe’s relations with China, this level of fanfare has a lot to live.

However, in Brussels it really makes sense that the pandemic has led to a restoration of European thinking about China.

“I think coronavirus has been a necessary reminder to many EU states that however attractive Chinese money is, it is also a systemic rival,” says Steven Blockmans, EU foreign policy chief at the Center for European Policy Studies. .

Blockmans refers to a statement published by the European Commission in March 2019, in which it described China as “a systemic rival promoting alternative governance models”.

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In the context of the coronavirus, that Chinese model of government concerns EU officials.

Last month, the European External Action Service published a report on disinformation around covid-19, stating that “official and state-backed sources from various governments, including Russia and – to a lesser extent – China, have continued to largely hit conspiracy narratives and misinformation.”
Days before, Political Europe published an excerpt from what he said was a draft version, which explicitly accused China of “conducting a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image”.

An EU foreign and security policy spokesman told CNN that the document quoted by Politico was not actually a draft report.

Whatever the truth, it is clear that some in Brussels are very concerned about China’s behavior.

“It’s about seeing which (political) system is most effective in managing the virus. Is it a system that allows for personal freedoms? Or is it the one-party autocracy where you can impose measures without worrying too much,” said an official at the EU working through foreign affairs.

This lack of confidence seems to be taking hold across Brussels. Over the weekend, the European Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, he said in an interview with the French Le Journal du Dimanche that Europe had been “naive” in its relations with China. He went on to recognize that China has a “different understanding of the international order”.

So where does everything that was supposed to be the year China and Europe finally arrive on the same page come from?

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At the time of writing, very few believe that the Leipzig summit will be like Merkel and others have imagined for the first time.

On a practical level, the virus meant that the two sides were unable to meet physically. European diplomats point out that there are normally around 30 meeting rooms in the EU Council building where representatives of the 27 Member States can meet and discuss sensitive issues. “Now there are only about 10 who can guarantee social distancing” said a diplomat.

Velina Tchakarova, head of the institute at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, predicts that “China’s actions during and after the covid-19 would lead to further disagreements and fragmentation within European countries [on] how to resolve relations with Beijing. ”

Stresses disagreements on issues such as allowing Chinese companies to build 5G networks and EU-level decisions on who can or cannot invest in Member States.

For these and other reasons, many believe that the Leipzig summit will be totally obscured by the coronavirus.

However, despite these low levels of confidence and the clear recognition that China is a “systemic rival”, it seems likely that the EU will try to get things back on track.

“It will make us rethink, but at the same time we cannot move away from China,” an EU diplomat told CNN. “All of our economies are based on supply chains that go back to Wuhan and beyond. We have always said that no interests will be served unless you trade with them. So that problem will always be present.”

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Another German diplomat defended by insisting, saying that “China’s influence is increasing, but it is not one-sided. Of course, China also needs Europe”. This, Brussels officials hope, means that it can put pressure on China for things like its human rights position.

For the EU, engagement with China goes beyond money. “Increasing its engagement with China offers the EU the opportunity to double its strategic priorities,” says Blockmans, referring to the key foreign policy priority of the EU to balance its relations with China and the United States, giving EU greater autonomy on the world stage.

However, concerns about China’s transparency during the pandemic have been a strong reminder of what engagement with China actually means.

On the one hand, the EU calculation on China has not changed: it is still desirable not to be crushed between the two big superpowers, China and America. On the other hand, recent history shows that China is an unreliable partner who divides opinion among EU member states.

Sooner or later, Europe will have to evaluate these two realities and decide exactly how much diplomatic independence from America is really worth.

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