Chinese Foreign Policy Is Changing Shape
The battle against the pandemic provided the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with an opportunity to change the toolbox used in its foreign policy towards the West. Beforehand it was simple, and its elements soft, with coercion largely reserved for small countries or locations in the geographical neighborhood.
The first opportunity for action came with shipments of medical equipment, reinforced by an information avalanche, depicting the PRC as the new world leader in providing humanitarian relief. Personal protective equipment, test kits, and ventilators arrived to public acclaim in European countries including Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Lithuania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Ukraine. Chinese propaganda went into full swing to counter negative stories linking the communist state to the virus and promoting the positive message that China is an altruistic country that is “ready to stand shoulder to shoulder” with its partners and show them who their “true friends are in times of hardship.”
It hit home. Nathalie Tocci, the director of the Institute of International Affairs in Rome, observed in an interview that China’s actions will “change for good” Italians’ perceptions of world leadership, with emotions that will be “engraved in the national narrative.” This message not only undermines Atlanticist sentiment in countries like Italy, by contrasting Chinese generosity with initial American inaction, but also more widely in promoting conspiracy theories, notably the allegation that a U.S. military delegation was responsible for the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.
The Chinese PR campaign hit some potholes: warnings about Chinese organized procurement practices came in the Czech Republic. Spain, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic reported faulty, Chinese-made test kits. But overall the Chinese strategy appears to be paying off, chiefly because of perceived European Union disarray and divisions.
The role Chinese companies like Huawei and Alibaba and individuals (like Jack Ma) play is a sign of their interest in further expanding their market access in Europe. This already caused shivers: EU and NATO representatives are warning about the possibility of Chinese take-over of European companies.
Chinese steps have not stopped there. The PRC has also successfully pressured the EU to soften criticism. This sentence — “China has continued to run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image.” — was excised from a published report by the EU’s European External Action Service (EEAS). The EU’s top diplomat. Josep Borrell, admitted that China had objected to parts of the report, but denied it had been watered down.
Perhaps more importantly, Germany has also reported that Chinese diplomats have been trying to persuade officials to make positive comments. This is particularly significant given that Germany takes over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency in July, for what it has announced as a “coronavirus presidency.” The presidency (in cooperation with previous and upcoming holders of the role) sets the agenda for the union’s core institutions. Sharper pressure from China may be aiming to paralyze the EU’s functioning, perhaps driving a wedge between a hawkish Germany and the more compliant EU institutions such as the EEAS.