China May Be Undermining its Own 'Mask Diplomacy' in Europe With Poor Quality Products

China is working hard to turn the coronavirus pandemic from a crisis into an opportunity. The outbreak began in the central city of Wuhan in December, while local officials were trying to silence whistleblower doctors and dispel concerns of a wider problem.

The virus has since spread worldwide, infecting more than 4.4 million people and killing more than 303,000, according to Johns Hopkins University. The issue was quickly politicized, and the pandemic has colored China's relations with its most prominent rivals and partners.

Having contained its own initial outbreak, China pivoted to assist worse-hit nations in Europe and North America. Millions of pieces of equipment and groups of medical personnel were sent abroad to support other nations, in what at first seemed like a significant PR coup for Beijing.

But quality complaints soon followed. A host of European nations rejected medical equipment for being faulty or not meeting local standards. In the United Kingdom, authorities warned that hundreds of ventilators may have killed patients if they had been used.

Newsweek subscription offers >

This week, the European Union's European Commission suspended the planned delivery of 10 million masks sourced from China, warning it would take legal action against the suppliers if needed.

Chinese authorities introduced new export rules to try and drag up the quality of medical products sent abroad, but have still struggled to stop counterfeit and faulty products finding their way to other countries. The new measures also caused a bottleneck in exports, prompting the State Department to urge Beijing to speed up the process.

China has been accused of trying to cover up the coronavirus outbreak in its early stages, failing to adequately warn the international community and lying about its infection and death tolls.

While other nations grappled with their own outbreaks, China has also allegedly been driving a disinformation campaign to malign Western governments and absolve itself of blame.

Newsweek subscription offers >

Foreign leaders have called for an international probe into the origins and course of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Beijing has so far rejected the proposal. Tensions are heightened and mistrust is fermenting between Beijing and other capitals. China's so-called "mask diplomacy" could have been a calm spot in otherwise stormy waters, but quality issues have marred even that.

Andrew Small of the European Council on Foreign Relations told Newsweek that China's equipment failures are "reputationally damaging," even if many of the problematic orders have come through private companies and cannot be directly blamed on Beijing.

China has increasingly sought to present itself as a global power, one capable of challenging U.S.-led Western hegemony and striking out on its own unapologetically authoritarian path. Xi would have hoped that a leading global role in fighting the pandemic would bolster these aims, but defective equipment undermines this.

Some European lawmakers have already begun calling for the bloc to reclaim supply chains long since surrendered to China, arguing that Beijing cannot be relied upon in a crisis. China's showy assistance program also rankled some in Europe, given Beijing's request that significant European assistance sent east in the early stages of the Hubei outbreak was done so discreetly.

The situation poses a question as to "what does it mean to be reliant on China for your supplies generally in a crisis of any sort?" Small said.

Small added that European officials have been somewhat shocked that China has continued aggressively ideological disinformation campaigns even in the face of the crisis. "I think there was a bit of a sense that this might be suspended just to deal with the immediate issues around the crisis," he explained.

Europe's China stance is not monolithic, and there exists significant variation between different nations and different regions. Countries in the south and east of the continent have generally been more open to Chinese investment and influence, with those in the west and north less so.

A report published by the French Institute of International Relations earlier this month noted a variation in Beijing's strategy from "low key" influence methods in countries like Latvia or Romania, to a "charm offensive" in Poland, Portugal, Italy or Spain and even "provocative or aggressive" action in Sweden, Germany or France.

But the economic incentives of cooperation with China will be more powerful than ever as the world seeks to escape a potentially unprecedented depression. Imperfect mask diplomacy might have hampered Beijing in the short term, but it may not impact the long-term trend towards closer and more lucrative cooperation.

Brussels and Beijing have been negotiating a major investment treaty since 2013, one that was due to be signed off in September when Xi visited Germany for the EU Summit. Whether or not the meeting even goes ahead, the pandemic may well delay the deal.

Former European diplomat Fraser Cameron, now the director of the EU-Asia Centre, noted that major economic decoupling between the EU and China remains unlikely. Even vocal China-skeptics "know how important China is to the global economy and even assisting in any European recovery," Fraser told Newsweek.

"The idea that there's going to be a complete change in supply chain is simply impossible," Fraser added, though noted it was more likely that medical supply chains will be taken back into European control. But overhauling the manufacturing balance "just can't happen over a short period of time."

The coronavirus pandemic may have highlighted the competition of values between the EU and China, but the issues are not new. The EU has repeatedly spoken out against China's human rights abuses, despite protests from Beijing. Ultimately, though, money talks.

Human rights "will be on the agenda" of any trade and investment discussions, but that is the case with many other authoritarian nations, Fraser said. "It doesn't actually interfere with trade deals," he added.

Still, the current situation plays on existing skepticism toward China among Europeans where a clash in values was already clear. The pandemic could be the prompt that forces Europe to revisit "some of the more fundamentals" in their relationship with Beijing, Small said.

China, coronavirus, masks, France, EU, Europe, diplomacy
Operators store boxes of face masks delivered from China at the Paris-Vatry airport in Bussy Lettree, France on April 19, 2020. FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP via Getty Images/Getty
China May Be Undermining its Own 'Mask Diplomacy' in Europe With Poor Quality Products | World