European Union
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wears a face mask as he heads to a meeting in Brussels on Monday. Photo: EPA-EFE

EU fires warning shot at China in coronavirus battle of the narratives

  • The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has called on the bloc to be ready for a ‘struggle for influence’ with Beijing
  • Comments reflect growing unease that Chinese aid is aimed at undermining European unity
The European Union’s top diplomat has fired a warning shot at China’s “politics of generosity”, amid a growing sense of unease over Beijing’s targeted strategy to help certain European countries with medical supplies to fight Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

In an unusual choice of language, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called on EU countries to stand ready for a “struggle for influence” in a “global battle of narratives”.

While Beijing has called its campaign to send millions of face masks to Europe – current epicentre of the pandemic – a show of solidarity and friendship, Borrell cast light on its geopolitical significance in a blog post released by EU External Action, the agency he leads.

China steps up support for Europeans hardest hit by Covid-19

“There is a global battle of narratives going on in which timing is a crucial factor,” he said, noting that the focus had shifted from Europe helping China to the other way round. “China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner.

“In the battle of narratives we have also seen attempts to discredit the EU as such and some instances where Europeans have been stigmatised as if all were carriers of the virus.

“The point for Europe is this: we can be sure that perceptions will change again as the outbreak and our response to it evolves. But we must be aware there is a geopolitical component including a struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity’,” Borrell said.

“Armed with facts, we need to defend Europe against its detractors.”

Since the focus of the pandemic shifted from China to Europe, Beijing has tried to help to plug European shortages by distributing medical equipment, but Europe was left disappointed with US President Donald Trump’s decision to impose a travel ban on travellers from the Schengen zone, which allows for passport-free travel across much of the continent.

The latest EU country to receive aid from China is Hungary, whose eurosceptic Prime Minister Viktor Orban shared a video on Facebook showing the arrival of a Chinese plane carrying 3 million masks, 100,000 test kits and 86 ventilators.

France and Austria, which sent support to the central Chinese city of Wuhan – where the first cases of the new disease were reported last year – at the height of the outbreak in China, have also received supplies from Beijing.

Some big Chinese corporate names – including billionaire Jack Ma and tech giant Huawei Technologies – have also sent medical equipment to countries such as Belgium, Spain and Ireland.

Even Borrell’s own boss, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, sounded positive last week, when she thanked China for providing the EU with medical supplies, including 2 million surgical masks. She called it a “reciprocal” act given the EU had dispatched similar equipment to China during the start of the outbreak.

Italy, which currently has the highest number of deaths in the world, has been the biggest beneficiary of Chinese medical aid and supplies, while also reaching out to Russia and Cuba for medical help.

China steps up support for Europeans hardest hit by Covid-19

But two recent developments have changed the EU’s thinking, according to a diplomatic source briefed on the matter, driving EU officials closer to the rhetoric of regarding China as a “systemic rival”, a phrase first used under von der Leyen’s predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker.

First, there is the sense that China’s leadership prefers to deal directly with European countries, rather than through the EU. Von der Leyen was the only major European leader who did not receive a phone call from Chinese President Xi Jinping.

While Xi has phoned French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spain’s King Felipe over the past week, it was left to Premier Li Keqiang to make the call to Von der Leyen.

Second, the EU was startled by the reaction of Serbia, which is on course to begin accession talks at some stage to join the EU. When the EU hastily enacted an export ban on medical equipment, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic lambasted EU solidarity as a “fantasy”, turning instead to Xi, whom he called a friend and a brother.

Serbia reaches out for China’s helping hand in coronavirus fight

While the EU urgently arranged €7.5 million (US$8.1 million) in aid for Belgrade, China moved swiftly to solidify ties with Serbia, with Xi calling Vucic last week to pledge medical support and heap praise on the “ironclad friendship” between the two countries.

At the same time, Chinese diplomats stepped up what critics describe as a disinformation campaign on Twitter.

The Chinese embassy to France, for instance, posted a series of tweets claiming the US government had covered up a coronavirus outbreak last year as flu cases, deflecting claims that Covid-19 originated in China.

“Following the surprise closure last July of the largest American research centre for biochemical weapons, the Fort Detrick base in Maryland, a series of pneumonia or similar cases have occurred in the United States,” one of the tweets claimed.

Chinese officials take to Twitter in fight for control of coronavirus narrative

Mikko Huotari, executive director of the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, called it a “good signal” that Borrell showed awareness of the geopolitical dimensions of “Chinese diplomatic spin”.

“This is clearly not just apolitical altruism,” Huotari said. “[China’s efforts] will backfire with many advanced economies. Trust is based on reciprocating ... deeds, not words and certainly not spreading conspiracies.”

Andrew Small, an expert on EU-China relations at the German Marshall Fund, said initial EU goodwill towards China had gone. “The level of politicisation, propaganda and outright disinformation on the Chinese government’s part has really stepped up in recent days,” he said.

“Borrell’s statement is both a strong message of unease at Beijing’s behaviour and a signal that the EU and its member states will have to play a more active role in competing with China and others to influence the European and global narrative around this crisis.”

Beyond Europe, both China and the EU have also vowed to assist Africa in its battle against Covid-19.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Monday that China had been providing African countries with medical equipment, and would “step up the level of support as a next step”.

Borrell, meanwhile, had a similar message. “The EU should … be ready to assist others in fragile situations who risk being overwhelmed,” he said. “In this regard, Africa is a major concern.”

Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: EU envoy issues warning in battle of the narratives