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The Europe-China axis: cracks exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis

Written by on 30 avril 2020

An increasingly fragmented relationship between the European Union and China, caused by the coronavirus crisis but something that was already building up before. Today we are speaking to Andrew Small, a senior fellow in Washington DC studying relationships between Europe and China and the USA and China.

So Andrew, were there indications of a degradation of the relationship between Europe and China before the start of this crisis, or were there indications that the relationship may have been strengthening? 

The mainstream opinion in Europe was heading in a much more critical direction, exemplified by the European Union’s paper that came out a year ago that labelled China a ‘systemic rival’, and talked about the fact that the balance of challenges and opportunities with China had gone through a marked shift. There are concerns about rising authoritarianism under Xi Jinping, and in a purely economic lens, many countries in Europe have seen a marked shift. You are seeing the instrumentalisation even of the private sector in China that would work to the detriment of European companies.

Is it the countries with more authoritarian governments that are exceptions to these tendencies? 

There are quite different views, and it will be interesting to see how populous leaders treat China in the aftermath. You already see someone like Orbán doubling down on his existing position, but you are also seeing heightened criticism and pushback against China from right authoritarian-inclined leaders too.

In Europe, since countries did not know just how bad the crisis could get, they were under-prepared. Are the biggest cracks in the Europe-China relationship now total mistrust? 

The handling of the early stages of the breakout has certainly exemplified a whole series of forms of distrust – the way that inflammation flows took place, repressive behaviour of the State, locking up of whistleblower doctors, suppression of information about the virus. They have also sought to exacerbate internal divisions in Europe and exploit economic fragility in Europe.

Do European leaders feel let down by China? 

A lot of leaders in Europe had counted on China to put the geopolitics aside.

Have you noticed a correlation between the countries that have been more greatly affected by the crisis and the backlash and blame-shifting towards China? Do you think this is justified, or a tactic to divert the blame and make the government’s handling of the crisis look good, or at least less bad? 

I think it is both. China-blaming is an obvious route for governments that have handled the crisis poorly, as you have seen in the UK and the USA. It is also justified to significant degree, and I think we are going to see a worsening of the blame-deflection. There is also well-warranted criticism about how they handled the early stages.

We have seen several examples praising China’s approach. Donald Trump praised China to begin with on a regular basis, and Pedro Sánchez in Spain said that China is a model for Europe to follow. What has changed? 

Most governments in Europe went into this in a spirit that was relatively cooperative. There was a view that said during the crisis itself, you suspend these blame questions. For a lot of governments in Europe, they were going to need to look to China for supplies. There were then problems with the supplies themselves, but more importantly, when China took supplies from Europe, they wanted to ensure this was done in as lowkey a manner as possible. However, when they reciprocated this, they did this in a theatrical way, and this created pushback against the narrative that China had been the single source of assistance and benign handling of this crisis while the West were floundering.

In the aftermath of this crisis, are we now going to see a Europe that is far less economically reliant on China? 

How far can you really rely on China in a situation like this again? There is a wider question that has come up about the level of economic dependency on China. The buzz-word in Europe has been ‘diversification’. There needs to be a more effective level of diversification away from China. European companies were left dependent on China alone for their supplies alone. This is going to be a period in which Europe has to see China as a rival too.

China and the European Union, the second and third biggest economies in the world. What are the main worries about a potential degradation of this relationship on the world economy? 

I don’t think we are going to get a replication of the US-China dynamics. You will see a systematic rebalancing over time, and there will still be crucial areas of cooperation that will be pursued with China such as tackling climate change and other European priorities. Cautionary exercise rather than something that leads to a lasting restructuring, it could certainly lead to a rebalancing of global economic dynamics, some of which were underway already and will no doubt be accelerated by this.

There is no doubt that, whenever the crisis wavers, both economically and diplomatically the biggest tests for Europe and China are still to come.


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