One of the defining features of President Trump’s administration is his approach to China. China-policy has always been an important aspect of American foreign policy, but under the Trump administration, this policy has become a rather public spectacle.
From the tariff and trade deficit battles to Huawei, to the burgeoning new Cold War, one thing has been kept on everyone’s mind since Trump first decided to run for office: “China” (spoken loudly in his distinctive Queen’s borough New York City accent).
Due to the tremendously partisan nature of President Trump’s policies, and the weariness of being stuck in the middle of the growing US-China competition, the President’s China policies have not been quick to catch on in Europe. During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, however, European leaders and the media have started to become decidedly more Trumpian in their approach to China.
Before the pandemic, the President’s administration had failed to even convince close allies such as Britain, France, and Germany to not allow Huawei to provide key components for 5G technology, or for Italy to not join China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Since the pandemic, a new layer of complexity has been added to the West’s relations with China, and some European leaders and media outlets have seized on the opportunity to come somewhat more in line with American policies.
Over the weekend, the controversial and enormously popular German tabloid ‘Bild’ released an article called “What China owes us” (Was China uns jetzt schon schuldet) which outlined a bill worth €149 billion that they claim China owes Germany. The article echoes US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent stern remarks that those who were responsible for the outbreak will be held accountable.
Bild argues that because China hid vital information on the coronavirus for so long and continued to misreport the pandemic as it was unfolding in China, the economic damage that has been caused to Germany is a direct result of the Chinese government.
Bild, therefore, released a detailed bill adding up to a loss of €1,784 per German citizen based on an estimated 4.2% drop in GDP. This includes such losses as €24 billion in lost tourism, €50 billion in lost small business profits, and losses for airline Lufthansa that add up to €1 million per hour of the lockdown.
The Editor-in-Chief of Bild, Julian Reichelt, does not actually believe that the Chinese government will ever pay anything just as “they have never paid for anything, for example, patents, that they have stolen from other countries. China, or the Chinese regime, likes to take whatever they wish and not pay the bill for it.”
The Chinese embassy in Berlin responded angrily to this article by stating “anyone who makes a calculation as you do in BILD newspaper stirs up nationalism, prejudice, xenophobia, and hostility to China.” Though China was furious at the article, Bild clearly made their point and they represented and influenced the views that many Germans now have towards China.
Trumpian articles such as Bild’s have expressed the existing frustration that Germans have on China’s secrecy, and on how they conduct business in Europe and around the world. But this feeling is by no means confined only to Germany.
Britain is another country that seems to have sharply changed their tone when it comes to China. In early April, a British parliamentary committee on foreign relations declared that China “allowed disinformation to spread as quickly as the virus” and emphasized that the government “needs to tackle these lies with a clear and quick response, working with our allies to show a united front in the face of false facts and deadly disinformation.”
In response to China’s actions in regard to the coronavirus, Britain’s 5G partnership with Huawei is also now in doubt. A senior (unnamed) British cabinet minister has stated that “we can’t stand by and allow the Chinese state’s desire for secrecy to ruin the world’s economy and then come back like nothing has happened… We’re allowing companies like Huawei not just into our economy, but to be a crucial part of our infrastructure.”
The criticism of China has been equally strong in France as well. On April 14, the French Foreign Office summoned the Chinese ambassador in order to voice their displeasure over misinformation that was spread by a Chinese diplomat regarding the French handling of the coronavirus.
When responding to a reporter’s question on the Chinese handling of the coronavirus, President Macron fired back at China by suggesting that we not be “naïve” in thinking that China’s response to the pandemic was much better than the West’s. Following his “naïve” statement, Macron further added that “We don’t know – there are clearly things that have happened [in China] that we don’t know about,” hinting at the fact that Chinese data regarding their supposedly quick recovery is not to be trusted.
President Trump has long been vocally calling for businesses to bring supply chains and manufacturing back to the United States, and here too the French are showing signs of Trumpian-economics. The French finance minister has already declared that “we have to decrease our dependence on a couple of large powers, in particular China,” and that “there will be a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ the coronavirus in global economics.”
In past weeks, China has aggressively attempted to distance themselves from the virus, and has even spread false rumors around the world that the virus was created by the US Army, or that it actually originated in Italy. At the same time, China has attempted to capitalize on the pandemic by sending highly publicized shipments of aid to countries across Europe in hopes of boosting their image.
In many cases, the Chinese aid has been much needed and warmly received. However, in recent weeks countries such as Spain, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic have rejected and recalled faulty Chinese facemasks and test-kits, and other nations have grown increasingly skeptical of China’s supposed good-will.
China’s attempt at being shown in a good light during this pandemic – even paying to set up propaganda posters in places like Serbia – has angered many people across Europe.
China’s current influencing campaign may prove to do more harm to their image than good in Europe and may lead to a further rise in Trump-like policies and rhetoric across the continent.
The Tipping Point, Not the Start
The pandemic should not be seen as the start of Europe’s potential drift towards more Trumpian policies in regard to China but as the tipping point. For a long time now, countries like Germany and its neighbors to the east have chosen to remain open to China while at the same time being keenly aware of the risks.
Germany has allowed Huawei to supply 5G technology, yet at the same time was a leader in pushing the European Union into naming China a “systemic rival”. In recent years, Germany has also rewritten laws on foreign investments in order to reduce the threshold needed to intervene and block acquisitions of German companies after important businesses were bought by Chinese firms.
China’s ‘17+1 Initiative’ – which includes China (the +1) as well as 12 EU states in eastern Europe (and Greece) and 5 non-EU Balkan nations – is a platform created in 2012 to increase cooperation and investment between China and eastern Europe.
Western European nations – and even some of the 17 Initiative member states – are wary of China’s growing economic and soft power influence in the region, and the potential undermining of the EU. Nations such as Lithuania, have taken issue to the huge trade imbalances that have arisen over the years between themselves and China (€189 vs €855 million respectively in 2018), while others, such as Montenegro, are concerned about skyrocketing debt due to Chinese infrastructure projects.
Other major events in eastern Europe that have upset relations between Europe and China have been the 2020 accusations of foreign influence campaign by the Chinese government that directly linked the pro-Chinese Czech President and the January 2019 arrest of two Huawei workers in Poland – one a Chinese national and the other a former employee of Poland’s intelligence agency – on spying charges. Many see these two cases as further examples that China is actively engaged in massive spy and influence operations in Europe, and often use supposedly private companies to carry out these deeds.
The examples given here – such as the Bild article or Britain and France’s various responses to the ongoing situation – are just a few of the many ways in which the European public and the policy leaders have been changing their soft views on China and moving towards a more Trumpian approach (except maybe with a more eloquent tone).
What will be interesting to watch is how exactly Europe handles their post-pandemic relations with China. If Europe decides to further adopt the tactics and rhetoric that President Trump has been using on China in relation to trade deficits, investments, and supply chains, as well as on China’s foreign policy abroad and in the South China Sea, then we might see a strong rapprochement between the United States and the EU. A more Trumpian Europe is the last thing that China wants, and could be a huge gamechanger when it comes to the geopolitics of the wider Eurasian region.
Michael Belafi is a Political-Military Analyst based in Brussels.