China had designated 2020 as its “Year of Europe.” The country’s leaders had planned a series of diplomatic events and trade deals as part of a charm offensive to expand Chinese influence.
But the coronavirus pandemic and mounting accusations that Beijing may have obscured the origins of the deadly virus and covered up the severity of the initial outbreak in the city of Wuhan is upending the diplomatic plan.
Germany has joined Australia and the United States in calling for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus, adding to a growing clamor in Europe for a much more detailed accounting by Beijing about how the virus started — and why the Chinese government delayed informing the World Health Organization about the ease of human-to-human transmission.
Chinese officials are bristling at the calls for an inquiry. Le Yucheng, a vice foreign minister, told the American television network NBC on Wednesday, “This is an arbitrary investigation based on the presumption of guilt. That is what we firmly oppose.” He added, “We support professional exchanges between scientists, including exchanges for reviewing and summarizing experiences. What we oppose, however, is unfounded charges against China.”
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne midweek cautioned China against trying to mount any “economic coercion” on Australia to try to deter its push for an independent review of the origins of the coronavirus. “We reject any suggestion that economic coercion is an appropriate response to a call for such an assessment, when what we need is global cooperation,” Payne said.
Her remarks followed a press interview with the Chinese ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, who said the push for a coronavirus inquiry could inflame anti-Australian sentiment in China and result in a boycott of Australian goods. “Maybe the ordinary people will say, 'Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?’" Cheng told Australia’s Financial Review newspaper. China is the largest export market for Australian wine and beef.
Chinese officials now say it is premature to identify China as the original source of the pandemic — its embassy in Rome has suggested the origin of the virus lies in Italy.
Anger toward Beijing has been boiling in Western capitals for weeks for what officials say was a botched initial response by Chinese authorities, which allowed the novel virus to establish itself in Wuhan and subsequently spread far and wide. The Communist government’s attempts to blame the outbreak on a visit by a U.S. Army sports delegation to Wuhan, one of a string of theories spread by Chinese propagandists, which have been discredited by authoritative virologists and epidemiologists, have only served to stoke mounting anger.
A report published this week by the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic arm, accused China of running a “global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image.” The disinformation campaign, say Western government officials and analysts, is a bid by Beijing to avoid criticism over its initial handling of the coronavirus outbreak, which included silencing Wuhan doctors endeavoring to sound the alarm.
Chinese aid shipments in recent weeks have done little to assuage European criticism of Beijing. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has dismissed China’s “politics of generosity” as a stunt, advising the bloc’s members to be ready for a “struggle for influence” with China and a “global battle of narratives.”
Amelie de Montchalin, France’s Europe minister, has accused China of using deliveries of medical equipment to try to burnish its image on the continent. The quality of some of the medical equipment, including masks and ventilators, has also come into question with several countries, including Spain, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, returning faulty Chinese-made virus test kits.
On Friday, it emerged that some senior British doctors had warned their superiors that 250 ventilators Britain bought from China risk causing “significant patient harm, including death,” if used in hospitals. The doctors said the ventilators could not be disinfected properly, had faulty oxygen tubes and were built for use in ambulances, not hospitals.
A chorus of Chinese government critics in the West says the pandemic should serve as a wake-up call, alleging it exposes the Communist government’s repressive policies at home and bullying of opponents abroad. The critics say the West must ready itself for an era-shaping struggle with Beijing over influence and global governance.
“The West is waking up to the true cost of China-centered globalization,” said Edward Lucas, an analyst at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a research group based in Washington. In a commentary, he said a confrontation has been a long time coming. “China wields its economic clout to reward submissive governments and punish unhelpful ones,” he said.
On Thursday, Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said “deceit about the virus” is a “glaring symptom” of the threat the Chinese government poses to Western states. “In the past month alone, China has brazenly expanded its reach. In Hong Kong, it has arrested leading pro-democracy activists and is attempting to criminalize criticism of the Chinese government,” she said, writing in The Washington Post. She also criticized Beijing for territorial claims it is making in the South China Sea.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday threatened China with fresh tariffs as he stepped up his attacks on Beijing over the coronavirus crisis, saying he had seen evidence linking a Wuhan laboratory to the outbreak. Pressed by reporters at the White House for details on what made him confident the virus originated in a lab, Trump replied, “I cannot tell you that.” Washington and Beijing reached a truce in January on a long-running trade war, although many tariffs remain in place.
In Europe, too, several governments are hardening their positions toward China, underscoring “the more hawkish European position enshrined in an EU strategy paper on China from a year ago, which referred to the country as a ‘systemic rival,’” said Erik Brattberg and Philippe Le Corre, analysts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a research organization based in Washington. “The EU-China relationship, which was already facing a difficult road ahead, could actually be further negatively impacted by coronavirus fallout,” they added.
French President Emmanuel Macron has accused Beijing of not being truthful about the epidemic, and the French government summoned the Chinese ambassador last month after his embassy posted on its website a claim that France had abandoned nursing home residents to their fate. Macron has been a leading figure on calls for economic and technological decoupling with China, especially when it comes to Europe’s dependence on prescription drugs, medical supplies, and other critical resources.
The pandemic has led to a host of cancellations of events meant to showcase European-Chinese cooperation amid rising alarm over Europe’s dependence on Chinese supply chains and the prospects of Chinese companies exploiting the current low valuations of European rivals to buy them out. An EU leaders’ investment meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping scheduled for September in Germany looks increasingly unlikely to happen, said EU officials. China is the EU’s second-biggest trading partner; the EU is China’s most important trading partner.