Europe has a role amid US-China blame game over Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic is an unprecedented public health crisis with disastrous economic consequences.

The International Monetary Fund and World Bank both acknowledge that this is a crisis like no other and no country will be immune from the severe impact on growth, jobs, health and livelihood.

Unfortunately, at a time when leadership and stewardship are needed, the two biggest powers, the United States and China, are engaged in blame game and a battle of narratives, and multilateral institutions such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) or World Bank are unable to fill the void in leadership to provide a more coordinated approach to address the challenges unleashed.

The US blamed China for a cover-up and WHO for being too China-centric. The Chinese blamed "the West" for dithering in their response and squandering the precious time Beijing has provided through its tough lockdown policies in China.

China is also trying to sell to the world its narrative as a responsible power, touting its governance model as a reason for its ability to bring the situation under control once the transmissibility of the virus is confirmed.

It also points out that its people were quick to share the genome of the virus with the world and worked cooperatively with WHO to warn the others to prepare for Covid-19.

US President Donald Trump, in bungling his response to Covid-19, tries to shift the blame to anyone else but his own ineptitude.

The US administration is now purveying the narrative that the Chinese government covered up the knowledge about human-to-human transmissibility of the virus for months, and had not fully shared whatever information it has learnt about the virus, hampering the ability of others to make informed choices.

The competing narratives and blame game being played out have intensified in the last few weeks.

This fight between the US and China is really an extension of their broader geopolitical fights that began before the pandemic.

So far, another major power - the Europeans - have tried not to be drawn into the US-China rivalry, but there are signs that they are now feeling that they need to push back against China in the battle of narratives.

A woman getting tested for the coronavirus in Shanghai last month. Much of how EU-China relations will evolve will depend on whether the EU comes out of the Covid-19 crisis stronger or weaker, and whether US President Donald Trump will be re-elected,
A woman getting tested for the coronavirus in Shanghai last month. Much of how EU-China relations will evolve will depend on whether the EU comes out of the Covid-19 crisis stronger or weaker, and whether US President Donald Trump will be re-elected, says the writer. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Anti-China sentiments and the fear that China is pushing its model of governance have been growing in recent years, and seem to be worsening as the American and European scramble to contain the virus came at enormous economic cost.

The narrative of China being a problem - because of its authoritarian political system and predatory economic model - is growing rapidly in the West.

Chinese mask diplomacy, initially well received, turned sour as Chinese propaganda, instead of humble and magnanimous, began to come across as condescending and manipulative.

Because Beijing is perceived to have overplayed its hand with its mask diplomacy, the pushback against China is now growing.

Mr Josep Borrell, the European Union's foreign policy chief, warned that Europe must be aware there is "a geopolitical component including a struggle for influence through spinning and the politics of generosity", and that Europe must be prepared for the global battle of narratives.

What is even more concerning is the emerging narrative in the West that China is a problem.

This "problematisation" of China as Professor Kerry Brown, director of Lau China Institute at King's College London, warned, runs the risk of creating more polarisation and hardened boundaries. At a time when Chinese cooperation is needed for many global challenges, such hardening of views will not serve the global community well.

The Europeans, because of their current lack of coherent strategy towards China, are still divided on how to engage China strategically.

However, one thing is clear to them. A "perpetual war" between the US and China would be increasingly uncomfortable for Europe.

The European Union has, like many others in Asia, tried not to choose between the US and China, and has since the election of Mr Trump talked about developing strategic autonomy.

Countries such as Germany and Britain had earlier on defied US pressure to ban Huawei outright and tried to strike a fine balance between its traditional ally the US and increasingly indispensable economic partner China.

Mr Trump's behaviour and his disparaging remarks on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the EU have soured transatlantic ties. Several EU leaders have made it clear that Europe can no longer rely on the US.

At the same time, Europeans are also more wary about over-reliance on China in the economic sphere. Trade and investment relations with China are set for a review.

The Chinese have used the 17+1 platform - a cooperation framework to engage countries in Central and Eastern Europe - to further divide the EU, much to the annoyance of the EU institutions.

Much of China's strategy and clout in South-east and Central and Eastern Europe is built on the expectation that the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) could help these countries catch up with the advanced EU countries in the north and west.

However, in the aftermath of Covid-19 and the increasing pushback against the BRI, Chinese influence through the 17+1 platform might be overstated.

Wary of further Chinese inroads into Europe, EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager had pointedly urged EU countries to buy stakes in European companies to counter the threat of Chinese takeovers in the midst of the pandemic.

The EU, unlike the US, is not looking into decoupling with China. However, a certain degree of social distancing may happen if China continues its ostentatious display of sharp power.

Much of how EU-China relations will evolve will depend on two factors - whether the EU comes out of the crisis stronger or weaker; and whether Mr Trump will be re-elected president of the US for another four years.

European unity is critical to address the immediate challenge of the virus and for the EU to become a truly strategic actor in its own right.

The world will be poorer if we can't have a Europe that can work with other like-minded partners such as Japan and Asean to stand up against the unilateralism of the US and continue to fashion a certain degree of multilateralism that includes pragmatic cooperation with China.

• Dr Yeo Lay Hwee is director of the European Union Centre, Nanyang Technological University.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2020, with the headline Europe has a role amid US-China blame game over Covid-19. Subscribe