How is the Coronavirus Pandemic Impacting EU-China Relations? Go back »

2020-04-07 | All chapters

How is the Coronavirus Pandemic Impacting EU-China Relations?

Written by Joerg Wuttke. Originally published on ChinaFile.

Image Credit: European Commission


At the turn of the new decade, the EU-China relationship was under serious strain: China’s ‘17+1’ scheme was a major irritant to Paris and Berlin in particular; Huawei was a significant bilateral conflict bubbling under the surface; and China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative was revealed as being far less universally beneficial than had been previously portrayed by China.

Yet there was real hope that the new EU Commission, along with a China-focussed European Council in the second half of 2020, could reinvigorate relations. Chancellor Merkel was lining up the September Leipzig summit to seal the long-negotiated EU-China investment agreement.

Then came COVID-19.

China was compelled to disclose the magnitude of the challenge, as it began its fight to prevent the virus spreading. While some voices responded with deplorable racism, characterising it as a ‘Made in China’ virus, most of the EU answered with sympathy. European governments provided support while EU companies operating in China went into humanitarian overdrive, donating millions in time and resources.

The economic and political impacts of the outbreak were felt almost immediately. Exports to Europe screeched to a halt and supply chains were universally rocked, forcing companies to consider major diversification. Meanwhile, high-level political meetings were interrupted, with communications reduced to phone calls and video conferences, and every face-to-face meeting cancelled representing an opportunity lost to push through important agreements. A wait-and-see attitude began to sink in.

As the virus moved from China to Europe, Chinese leaders reciprocated the support they had received from Europe only weeks earlier and sent masks, equipment and doctors. While this wonderful show of mutual care can help narrow the gulf between the two regions, the xenophobic sentiments from both sides—with many Chinese citizens now believing that non-Chinese pose the biggest threat of a virus resurgence within China—will only drive them further apart. 

How might the virus shape the relationship in the years to come?

People in Europe are questioning China’s governance model, and the fact that it covered up the problem for several weeks has not gone unnoticed. The absurd attempt to deflect the blame and label the US as the origin of this problem merely stoked anti-China sentiment. 

European unity is now critical to both address the virus and cement EU-China relations. The relationship cannot be approached as a zero-sum game, as that would precipitate a move towards the decoupling championed by President Trump, resulting in rising costs, mass unemployment and the destruction of international supply chains. 

The noun ‘crisis’ comes from the Latinised form of the Greek, ‘krisis’, meaning ‘turning point in a disease’. At such a moment, the person with the disease could get better or worse: it is a critical moment. The current situation calls for bold decisions by both the EU and Chinese authorities that could change the face of globalisation forever. We urge them not to waste this crisis, and instead treat it as the turning point that it is.


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