Europe must learn a new China game

COVID-19 will prompt many European policymakers to give more than just a passing thought to China

18 May 2020 | Professor Kerry Brown (Image: Arthur Osipyan)

The dramatic impact of COVID-19 on Europe has awakened many politicians and members of the public to something Australians have been attending to for some time – the role of China in their lives.

Of course, there is currently a widespread feeling of anger. China has been blamed, with some even demanding reparations – though it is hard to see how these might be worked out.

Italy, which had already signed a MOU on the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in 2018, much to the dismay of the US, has had one of the highest rates of fatality from the virus. For some Italians, anger towards China is palpable. But Italy has welcomed consignments of Chinese aid through face masks and other goods.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron has talked of taking a harder line toward the People’s Republic – advancing a position he had taken before the crisis started. In Germany, however, where the crisis so far has been far more under control, China has not figured greatly in domestic debates.

Once again consensus eludes Europe

True to form, it seems, even a problem as immense as this has failed to so far forge anything like a consensus across the European states.

All of this might change as the economic cost starts to be counted. At the moment, governments are overwhelmed with the day-to-day management of the public health issue. But it is already clear that lockdowns, shop closures and furloughing of staff is going to have a massive, and potentially devastating financial impact.

For leaders in democracies, some of whom may well be facing furious electorates in elections soon, the natural impulse would be to seek to blame others for shortcoming and failures, even when many of them were more a production of home than outside actors.

Blame game still attracts players

China as a scapegoat is an easy option for many political figures. Its political system is already seen as justification enough by many to heap opprobrium on it. Added to that is the clumsy, and sometimes offensively defensive way that China’s diplomats, and state media, have spoken about the global pandemic, and its origins.

Trump’s provocative reference to the “Chinese virus” in March was paralleled by furious declarations by some in Beijing that the whole problem may have appeared in China, but had been planted there by the US. In this war of words, no side came off particularly well.

Everyone in the post-COVID-19 world looks set to confront a stark choice — be pragmatic, or perish.

All of this is happening in an environment where there was never anything like the intensity of Australia’s engagement and ultimate exposure to China. For Europe, China has always seemed remote, and peripheral – until now.

Paying attention to China

Public figures who have never expressed much interest or curiosity about China have now acquired a whole set of attitudes, and confident opinions, about this place they see as so evidently opposed to their own interests, and now, to their dismay, able to influence their environment.

It is good that complacency towards China is now at an end. But before holding Australia up as a model to emulate, it would also be wise to see the differences. Australia’s location, its history, its identity, its economic structure and the links to China through this are different. For a start they are more straightforward.

Australia has largely figured as a source of iron ore, agricultural produce and raw materials for the booming Chinese markets to the north – something that helped it uniquely make it through the 2008 financial crisis without the sort of drops in GDP that most other developed countries saw.

The free trade agreement signed in 2014 is a simple document compared with the epic deal the European Union has been trying to finalise with Beijing for the last 10 years – so far unsuccessfully. Europe has more complex demands, and, because of the variety of actors in it, more varied factors to consider as it works.

Pragmatism might be the game

Rather than talking about reparations that would never be paid even if they were demanded, it would be more prudent to work on a hard-eyed, realistic framework to work with China on solving the fall out of the COVID-19 crisis on the economy.

It is very likely that China’s economic travails will be similar to those of Europe – with the added problem that apart from economic delivery, there is little else that truly attracts Chinese people to their current ruling government. Here at least there is common cause.

More than they may have ever believed possible, and in the most ironic of circumstances, Europe and China (and the US, and the rest of the world for that matter) will be forced into a position of needing to work with each other urgently to find new sources of growth.

This may be the moment when Europeans use the one thing they have — sheer market size — to finally achieve significant concessions to get into the Chinese market.

Everyone in the post-COVID-19 world looks set to confront a stark choice — be pragmatic, or perish. COVID-19 is changing Europe’s view of China. But who said, in the end, it might not change China’s view of Europe? Strange things have, and are, happening every day now.

Professor Kerry Brown is one of the world’s per-eminent commentators on China, he is the author of nine books on China and is the former Director of the China Studies Centre at Sydney University. He is now professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London.