Despite China’s apparent enthusiasm, the “year of Sino-European friendship” has brought more challenges than successes, due to a mix of promise fatigue on the European side; growing Chinese assertiveness on the international stage; and increasing Chinese propaganda and controversies around the Covid-19 pandemic.
Both the overland Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk road have fundamentally been aimed at linking China with the European continent and its 500-million consumer market.
Regardless of the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November, how to address the rise of China and Beijing’s growing assertiveness post-COVID-19 will be one of the dominant issues in transatlantic relations under the next administration.
The meeting—although depicted as a decisive diplomatic victory by Chinese state media—was especially disappointing to Chinese leadership considering they were trying to accomplish larger geostrategic goals. One was to prevent the creation of a united transatlantic front against China.
China’s failure to commit to reforms to move toward fairer conditions for European firms in the Chinese market, China’s actions in Hong Kong, and its increasing militarization of man-made islands in the South China Sea hardly deserve a fete.
France has followed the U.K.’s lead, refusing to ratify an extradition treaty with Hong Kong and requiring local operators stop using Huawei by 2028. As for Germany, it finds itself as the last of the E3 and the ultimate decision maker on which way Europe could swing.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Europe and China hoped to put their differences aside. But now the relationship is in free fall, with deep uncertainty about what comes next.
Instead of a celebration, the EU-China annual summit which took place through videoconferences on June 22, showed irreconcilable differences over issues such as Hong Kong’s newly-announced national security law, cybersecurity and human rights.
Italy was one of the countries that are keeping the Chinese authorities most busy through a vast operation involving sending masks, respirators, diagnostic tests as well as visits by Chinese experts to Italy.
Although China’s aid offers have generally been welcomed by those leaders struggling to contain the outbreak, it is still far too early to conclude that Beijing is actually winning over any European hearts and minds.