China is leveraging the coronavirus crisis for diplomatic gains

A placard in Italy reads: “The enemy is the virus, not the people. Come on China!”
A placard in Italy reads: “The enemy is the virus, not the people. Come on China!”
Image: Reuters/Flavio Lo Scalzo
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At the end of last year, it seemed like diplomatic relations between China and Czechia—formerly the Czech Republic—had hit rock bottom.

Shanghai suspended ties with Prague after the latter signed a sister city agreement with Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, which China still considers part of its territory. Then the two countries fell out over accusations that Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, poses a security threat. Promised Chinese investments failed to materialize. And on Jan. 18, the Czech president announced he would skip a summit organized by China’s Xi Jinping. It was a crisis.

What a difference a few weeks make.

The Covid-19 pandemic, as the disease caused by the new coronavirus is known, has upended the global balance of power and brought the world economy to the verge of collapse (paywall). Now, some European countries, including Czechia, find themselves turning to China for help. In March, China agreed to sell medical supplies to the Czechs. Criticism of China, which had peaked just weeks earlier when the Czech prime minister suggested the Chinese ambassador be replaced, swiftly abated.

“We are now very non-critical towards China because we really need those supplies,” says Ivana Karaskova, who is based in Prague and is a coordinator for the research group China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE).

For China, the coronavirus is “a PR crisis as much as anything else,” says Una Bērziņa-Čerenkova, head of the New Silk Road program at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. Much of the world blames China for allowing the virus to spread. But the country has since succeeded in controlling the first wave of infections and its economy is on the mend (paywall). It’s now held up to the US and Europe as an example to follow.

If it can avoid a resurgence of the virus, China will be in a position to forge closer ties to Europe, one of the new epicenters of the outbreak, drive a wedge between Europe and the US and, in the absence of American leadership, position itself as the world’s benefactor.

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The 2020 that wasn’t

China has been cultivating greater economic and political cooperation with Europe for years through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a large-scale infrastructure project launched in 2013 that aims to connect the countries of the ancient Silk Road. Europe is also China’s largest export market, including for Huawei and its sought-after 5G technology.

This year was meant to be pivotal for the future of EU-China relations. The 27 European member states and China had committed to signing a joint investment agreement by the end of it. That now looks unlikely to happen.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, 2020 had gotten off to a rocky start. Renewed investment that China had promised Eastern European and Balkan countries that signed onto the BRI largely failed to materialize, especially after China’s economy started slowing down in 2018. As Thomas Fingar, a fellow at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, explained, the BRI in Europe has been “more slogan than reality.” Chinese foreign direct investment in the European Union peaked in 2016 and has actually declined each year since.

China’s heavy-handed diplomacy (paywall) had also set off crises across Europe in recent months. Protests in Hong Kong over Chinese encroachment and reports of China’s poor treatment of its Uyghur population were damaging China’s standing in the world. China responded by instructing its diplomats to more aggressively promote the Communist Party line abroad. Chinese embassies in Europe flooded Twitter with attacks on politicians and media outlets whose words or deeds didn’t support Beijing’s agenda.

Confounding relations even further was US president Donald Trump, who adopted a more hawkish approach to China and called on European countries to follow suit. Europe became the theater in which China and the US aired out grievances on issues like Huawei, climate change, Hong Kong, and more.

“The period of romantic optimism is over,” Latvia’s foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics told the Wall Street Journal (paywall) in late February, referring to a time when it seemed like Chinese investments in Europe could save struggling economies.

Then came March. The widespread transmission of the new coronavirus in Europe gave China a chance to regain its diplomatic footing on the continent.

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The spin

When the coronavirus outbreak began in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December, the world paid little attention. For a few weeks, it seemed like the problem would be contained to China. Then the virus began to spread. It has now infected more than half a million people people, most of them outside of China.

In February, Chinese premier Li Keqiang asked the European Union to sell medical supplies to China. The EU agreed and donated more than 50 tons of medical equipment. Large European companies like Bayer, L’Oréal, LVMH, and Michelin donated millions of euros to China—as did many American corporations and individuals. Weeks later, the roles reversed. The EU is now coming to China for help.

China, in response, has made a big show of donating medical equipment to countries like Italy, France, Spain, and Greece. Emotional videos of Chinese planes arriving in Europe, laden with supplies, circulated on social media. In France, the boxes of donated equipment featured a saying by French author Victor Hugo, “united we will triumph,” along with the phrase in Chinese, “a partnership defies geographic distance and is more solid than metal and stone.” In Italy, the boxes read: “we are with you, come on Italy!”

The countries China has chosen to help are European heavyweights but also strategic players in China’s geopolitical ambitions. Italy is the first (and so far only) G7 country to sign up for the BRI. “I’m not saying that they wouldn’t have sent a plane had it been another country on another continent,” Bērziņa-Čerenkova says. “But in this case, it came together for them, and I think that they will be capitalizing on this.” In a phone call, Xi Jinping told the Italian prime minister that Beijing would contribute to the creation of a “health silk road,” a reference to Italy being part of BRI.

In contrast, some European countries have criticized the EU for not doing enough to help, even though public health policy mostly falls under the purview of member states. “I think both the EU and the member states governments, and societies at large, just massively underestimated the challenge,” says Stefan Auer, associate professor in European Studies at the University of Hong Kong.

Italy’s permanent representative to the EU, Maurizio Massari, wrote in an editorial on March 10, “It’s time now for the EU to go beyond engagement and consultations.” Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić sharply criticized an EU-wide ban on the export of medical goods, saying that “European solidarity does not exist” and that the “only country that can help Serbia is China.” (Serbia is not an EU member state, though it is applying to be.) It was starting to look like China was the patron of Europe while EU leadership stood by and watched.

Chinese officials have seized that narrative, in ways that sometimes sidestep the truth. A spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry shared a video on Twitter claiming to show Italians cheering for China as the Chinese anthem played in the background. But Italian media outlets say (link in Italian) the anthem was added to the video later, and that it actually showed Italians clapping for their medical personnel, as they have been doing almost every day at 8pm since the outbreak began.

“Clearly, the Air China plane with medical specialists and medical supplies is a very powerful visual coming from China to Italy, and I don’t want to dismiss all of the practical support that this might bring,” the Latvian Institute of International Affairs’ Bērziņa-Čerenkova says. “But this is a political show.”

That doesn’t mean it won’t work, says CHOICE’s Karaskova. “Emotionally, people will think about who let them down and who helped, and this is a good opportunity for China to score some points.”

As another analyst from CHOICE, Filip Šebok, wrote: “China’s ability to step up and provide public goods may very well become a watershed moment in the perception of China around the world, especially if the Western democracies underperform.”

The US is one of those underperforming democracies. Just as China was gearing up its messaging and donations to curry favor in Europe, Trump unilaterally banned non-resident Europeans from flying to the US, blaming Europeans for an upsurge in American cases. Shortly after, European Commission leaders said in a statement that coronavirus “is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action.” Trump also reportedly tried to pay a Germany drugmaker for exclusive rights to a possible future vaccine against Covid-19, to which Germany’s economy minister said, “Germany is not for sale.”

Trump’s constant criticism of NATO, his encouragement of Brexit, and his threats of a trade war with Germany and France have brought transatlantic relations to historical lows. Europeans distrust the US (pdf) and largely refused to support the US in its trade war with China. China is now using that distrust to show that, by contrast, it is a more reliable partner for Europe. “It’s smart messaging and in a lot of the cases, China doesn’t need to do much,” says Lucrezia Poggetti, EU-China relations analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies.

In the latest spat between the two countries, China has attempted to sow doubts about the origin of the virus, while US officials have sparked a controversy by dubbing it the “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus.” Europeans may once again be a casualty of this war of messaging: As Quartz has reported, in the confusion, online sources in China have seized on fragments of an interview given by an Italian doctor to claim the virus originated in Italy.

“I think what is undeniable is that coronavirus is going to make the US-China divide even worse,” says Eyck Freymann, a senior analyst at the investment firm Greenmantle, and expert on China. “Europe is stuck in between.”

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The stakes

Jorge Guajardo, former Mexican ambassador to China, believes China will ultimately lose this war of perception around coronavirus. “Even though China might try to play the aid game, they always mess up with the attitude and the way they engage the world. And that’s what you’re seeing in Europe,” he says.

An example of the kind of diplomatic missteps Guajardo is referring to is a statement made by Lijian Zhao, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, alleging on Twitter that the US Army purposefully spread coronavirus in Wuhan. China’s ambassador to the United States, who has since been summoned by the White House over Zhao’s comments, was forced to do damage control in an interview with US media.

“The coronavirus can make or break China’s image abroad, and right now, as things have been evolving, they’re more on the ‘breaking’ side,”Bērziņa-Čerenkova told Quartz. “Even though China’s extremely organized response to the virus has been lauded in international media, the aspect that nobody can ignore is that it has been launched way too late.”

In this time of heightened uncertainty, no one would hazard a guess as to what will happen a month, a week, or even a day from now. There’s no telling whether, when the world emerges from this pandemic, China will have succeeded in furthering its diplomatic aims.

Only “one thing is for sure,” Freymann says. “China is going to be a major global force in whatever the world looks like a year from now, and they’re going to be trying to leverage the crisis to their own strategic advantage.”