The battle against COVID-10 has a geopolitical component. China is using aid to discredit the US and gain influence. The “Health Silk Road” is a tool to weaken European unity. With the EU, Xi uses the same strategy used in the South China Sea. However, Beijing's plans will fall on deaf ears unless the economy recovers in a major way.
Rome (AsiaNews) – Europe is beginning to look suspiciously at Beijing's "coronavirus diplomacy".
On Monday, EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell said that “There is a global battle of narratives” in the fight against the COVID-19, “a geo-political component” among big powers over the ‘politics of generosity’.
For Borrell, it is clear that China is aggressively trying to get the message across that it, unlike the United States, is a reliable partner.
After the trade war and the naval confrontation in the seas off the Middle Empire, China and the United States have found a new battleground, the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
Many observers note that, after initially stumbling, China’s Communist Party is taking advantage of its apparent success in fighting the virus to shift the global balance of power.
Beijing already enjoys the (conditional) support of Russia’s Putin, and that of many developing countries it subsidises with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - a mega plan of infrastructure investments designed to boost trade between China and the rest of the world.
In essence, only the Europeans are left for China to ensnare. The Trump administration’s travel ban against Europe at the start of the epidemic in the Old Continent was seen by some allies in NATO and the EU as a hostile act.
Conversely, EU members like Italy and Hungary have welcomed Beijing’s "generosity,” namely the large quantities of medical supplies donated or sold to fight the coronavirus outbreak outside China’s borders.
Spain has gone even further. In a tweet on 15 March, Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said he told his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi that he hoped to see easier trade between the two countries.
Since international trade comes under exclusive EU jurisdiction, the statement by the Spanish minister must have sent shivers down the spine of EU leaders.
The European Union is very concerned that China will use its economic clout, in particular its belt and road initiative, to get the most vulnerable members of the EU to follow its geopolitical agenda, thus weakening European unity.
So far China has not coordinated with the European Commission to manage its aid, preferring instead to deal directly with single states. Beijing has been using the same approach to settle (in its favour) territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
In this sense, the "Health Silk Road" proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in talks with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte could be seen by the EU as a new way to split the Union and gain even more influence with individual member states.
The EU has repeatedly criticised the 17+1 forum, which links China to 17 eastern and southern European countries, including 12 EU member states.
With respect to the COVID-19 crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel set the record straight. At the start of the crisis, “The European Union sent medical equipment to China,” Merkel said. With China now sending aid to Europe, “What we are seeing here is reciprocity,” she explained.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reiterated the same points as well.
The EU and China are expected to conclude a treaty on bilateral investment by the end of the year. Before the outbreak of the epidemic, the most optimistic expected the agreement to be signed in September, during a meeting between Xi and EU leaders in Leipzig.
According to the Chinese media, negotiations are still going on, but Phil Hogan, European Trade Commissioner, said in February that there were still many problems to solve; reaching a final deal remains in doubt.
The economy is the real Achilles heel of China’s strategy. If its economic system does not recover quickly, Xi's efforts to make China a world leader in the fight against the epidemic, winning the battle for other people's "hearts and minds" with aid, will fall on deaf ears.
Without its investments and huge internal market, without its middle class buying imported goods, and its cheap workforce, the Asian giant has little appeal on the other side of the Great Wall.