In the initial days of the pandemic, China was observed to have been riding on the high tide of diplomatic glory. Its success in handling the coronavirus pandemic was followed by a diplomatic spree which saw China sending emergency medical goods and personnel around the world as a goodwill gesture, dubbed as the “mask diplomacy”.
However, tables began to slowly turn upside down, when a slew of allegations were placed on China, in connection to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Also leading to the global backlash against China were the aggressive behavior of Chinese diplomats (termed colloquially as “wolf warrior” diplomacy), the Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, border skirmishes with India, economic coercion of Australia, imposition of new national security law in Hong Kong, and the internment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
China’s Overreach and Europe’s Response
Despite initial success, Beijing’s efforts to project a positive image using “mask diplomacy” began to backfire later on. The bad publicity has to do with the ‘poor quality’ of medical supplies delivered from China to the Netherlands, Spain, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Turkey. Meanwhile, China’s image suffered damage following the ‘misinformation’ campaign run by its diplomats in European capitals. China was also put on the defensive when a report from the US Department of Homeland Security claimed that China downplayed the severity of the pandemic in order to hoard medical supplies. Additionally, few instances where the Chinese government is reported to have muzzled the voices of European diplomats have not gone well with the European public.
During the pandemic, Europe’s biggest economies have enacted stringent foreign investment rules to prevent foreign takeover of “critical assets”, deemed necessary to national security, in a measure widely perceived as aimed at China. This follows the guidelines issued by European Commission in March that has called on EU member states to make full use of FDI screening mechanisms, to block predatory buying of strategic assets by foreign investors.
The western world has spoken out strongly and uniformly against the new Hong Kong law. In response to its imposition, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US, Germany, and France have suspended their extradition treaty with Hong Kong. Also, Chinese telecom giant Huawei saw a reversal in its fortunes in the west, following China’s assertive display. Backlash on Huawei is blatant in the case of the UK, which took a U-turn from its earlier stance to announce a ban on the Chinese telecom giant. The UK’s 5G decision to ban Huawei is partly linked to its deteriorating relations with China in the aftermath of the national security law imposition in Hong Kong. Following the UK’s decision, France issued a de facto ban on Huawei, and by indefinitely delaying a call on the matter, Canada is said to have effectively blocked Huawei.
As China became more assertive at the time of pandemic, the European countries’ interest in Indo-Pacific affairs increased measurably. This becomes clear from the renewed push for the establishment of a trilateral dialogue between France, India, and Australia. The German Indo-Pacific strategy is another example to the growing recognition that stability in the Indo-Pacific is directly linked to European prosperity. Apparently, all these moves were meant to strengthen the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, which has come under renewed threat from China during the pandemic.
China’s Europe Outreach
In an effort to calm the nerves, China has recently reined in on its aggressive diplomatic behavior. In China’s calculations, Europe occupies a crucial position in its competition with the US. As a result, China remains wary of any diplomatic mistake that could push Europe towards a strategic realignment with Washington. Realizing the diplomatic costs of its assertive behavior, China appears to have enhanced its diplomatic outreach to Europe in the recent months. It began with the visit of China’s Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi to France, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, and Italy towards the end of August. Hot on the heels of Wang, China’s Chief Diplomat and Politburo member Yang Jiechi, visited Spain and Greece. Commentators have claimed that such back-to-back trips by Chinese officials to Europe are unprecedented. In their view, these trips reflect Beijing’s urgent need to placate Europe amidst its worsening ties with Washington.
Just like Southeast Asia, Europe has always been wary of a situation, where it has to choose between the two superpowers. While the Trump administration in the US adopted a confrontational stance towards China, France and Germany did not want the EU to follow in the footsteps of the US. In the name of strategic autonomy, both ensured that the EU maintained a working relationship with China. But the Chinese behavior in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic seems to have changed the European perception about it. While the initial efforts of the Trump administration to cast China in a negative light had very few takers in the west, China’s diplomatic mix-up in the months since the start of the pandemic has come as a welcome gift for the US.
Eventually, China began to realize that its diplomatic overreach has caused damage to its international image. What has ensued is a visible effort from China to make up for its months long diplomatic suicide. In this context, China’s focus on Europe is because of its capability to tilt the scales against China, in its competition with the US. Clearly, China will try to use its economic leverage over Europe to limit the damage caused to its image. However, it is very unlikely that China will recover its lost prestige anytime soon. Henceforth, an awakened Europe, unable to trust China, will always remain skeptical of its each and every move.
Even while on a rapprochement trip to Europe, Wang Yi openly threatened Czech Senate President with dire consequences for rubbing China’s shoulders over Taiwan. He also warned Norway not to contemplate about granting Nobel peace award for Hong Kong activists. In Hong Kong and Xinjiang, China has shown no signs of policy reversal and treats western criticism as interference in its internal matters. All these behaviors show that China has no intention to completely reverse its present course. It also means that assertiveness as part of the Chinese foreign policy mix is here to stay. Although such behavior appears reckless, it might also be the case that, China, like Russia, no longer worries about soft power, while pursuing its strategic interests.
*Ragul Palanisami is a Senior Research Fellow, currently pursuing PhD at the US Studies Programme (USSP) of School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.