Coronavirus Dispute Highlights Growing EU Skepticism Towards China That Could Strain Post-Pandemic Ties

Last week's European Union report detailing Chinese disinformation regarding the coronavirus pandemic was given short shrift in Beijing. Foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang quickly rejected the findings, arguing China was the victim of disinformation rather than an instigator.

The report—which was reportedly watered down after Chinese threats—highlighted growing wariness of China among European nations, as Beijing attempts to dodge blame for the COVID-19 pandemic and pivot to assisting worse-hit nations via so-called "mask diplomacy."

Erik Brattberg—the director of the Europe program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace—told Newsweek there is a growing awareness among European nations of China's malign activities and the need to push back, including over disinformation.

"This crisis will reinforce that skeptical attitude towards China," he explained. "It seems that the increasingly tense EU-China relationship will continue to remain complicated."

Chinese efforts to whitewash its coronavirus failings may yet backfire. Western nations have questioned Beijing's official infection and death figures and condemned its lack of transparency and efforts to silence early whistleblowers. Some European nations have also sent back faulty Chinese medical supplies provided to help them fight the virus.

"So far, it seems that the crisis is reinforcing some of these negative trends in China," Brattberg said.

Without fundamental changes to the Chinese system—which is highly unlikely—"the relationship between China and Europe will continue to become increasingly complicated," Brattberg predicted.

But the global public health crisis is also an economic one. Even the world's wealthiest economies are facing the largest downturn in living memory, and international trade and cooperation will be key to any recovery.

Beijing's economic clout cannot be ignored, and though Western nations may wish to claw back control of some supply chains long-surrendered to China, total decoupling seems unlikely.

Former European diplomat Fraser Cameron, now the director of the EU-Asia Centre, said that for all the concerns about Chinese behavior, "nobody in their right mind" wants to make an enemy of Beijing. "Fundamentally, a lot of European prosperity depends on the Chinese market," he told Newsweek. "There's not going to be a major decoupling."

Brussels and Beijing were already negotiating a new investment agreement before the pandemic broke out. It was hoped that a deal would be signed in September when President Xi Jinping visited Leipzig, Germany, for the next EU Summit. It is not clear whether the meeting will even happen now.

The Europeans took a firm position on the talks, demanding intellectual property protection and equal access for European firms to Chinese markets. Such an agreement could help both sides recover from the coronavirus downturn, but according to Brattberg talks were "already looking very uncertain" and will likely be further undermined by the pandemic.

Cameron concurred. "It will be tough to get them over the finishing line by September," he predicted.

Chinese investment in Europe—for example as part of the mammoth "Belt and Road" project—is a double-edged sword, and has prompted some disquiet in Brussels. European nations are keen to avoid the fate of poor nations in Africa and Asia, where China's alleged predatory loan practices have handed Beijing control of vital infrastructure.

"There are growing European concerns about the scope and scale of some Chinese investments in Europe and the need to protect key European assets," Brattberg said. China has taken advantage of past European financial crises to invest on the continent, but this time Brattberg suggested that "European leaders are keen on trying to avoid that."

The coronavirus pandemic is deepening existing concerns about China's authoritarian system and associated human rights abuses. The EU has been vocal in its criticism of China's human rights abuses—including its persecution of Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang and the violent suppression of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong—and foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell has warned that Beijing is engaging in a "global battle of narratives" over COVID-19.

But European leaders have largely refrained from the hawkishness of President Donald Trump and key allies, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The Trump administration has placed the blame squarely at China's door, and attacked any perceived collaborators such as the World Health Organization. Beijing has cast such attacks as an effort to divert attention from the American bungling of the coronavirus response.

Europeans may share a lot of the same concerns as their American allies, but the approach has been different.

"I think Europeans are reluctant to be put in a position where they have to pick sides between either Washington or Beijing," Brattberg said. "They want to continue to have a strong economic and security relationship with Washington but then also continue to trade with China."

The EU is no monolith, certainly when it comes to foreign policy. Nations in central Europe and the Balkans for example are more willing to engage with China and take investment from the east. Leaders in Hungary and Serbia, for example, have lauded Chinese support during the coronavirus crisis and downplayed EU assistance.

Economic turmoil might make such opportunities even more attractive, and not all European leaders have the same fear of authoritarianism as the wealthy liberal democracies.

European leaders largely believe they need to maintain a working relationship with Beijing to try and help preserve the multilateral system, Cameron suggested, even if China's system and behavior sometimes run counter to it.

A hard break with Beiijng could do untold damage to the system of international trade and the nations and blocs that rely on it, particularly in the face of an unprecedented economic collapse. Still, coronavirus has magnified many Chinese characteristics that Europeans were already uncomfortable with.

"China is not making a lot of friends in Europe these days," Brattberg said. "They're turning more and more people into skeptics."

EU, China, relations, coronavirus, skeptical, Brussels, crisis
This file photo shows members of European Parliament wearing protective masks stand during a mini plenary session of European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, on April 16, 2020. JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images/Getty