Apr 1, 2020 - World

China's medical diplomacy is empowering euroskeptic leaders

Illustration of a hand pulling back an EU flag to reveal a Chinese one.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Chinese government has embarked on a highly publicized campaign to provide vital medical supplies to European countries as they fight coronavirus outbreaks within their borders.

Why it matters: Those efforts — and the perception that the European Union has done little to help — are providing fodder for politicians who are eager to hail China and criticize the EU. EU leaders may now have to worry about both Chinese and Russian overtures that weaken European unity.

What's happening: Chinese companies and charitable organizations are providing supplies and donations to Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Hungary, France, and elsewhere.

  • The donations are being met with fanfare and well-publicized ceremonies.

Some politicians have used the opportunity to criticize the EU for a perceived lack of similar support.

  • Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic kissed the Chinese flag after a plane full of donated items arrived in Serbia. He called European solidarity a "fairytale" and said only China could help.
  • Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said, "We’re not going to the EU for them to give us anything, or help or anything like that, because that doesn’t work."
  • Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio invoked Chinese medical assistance to defend his support for Italy's 2019 participation in the China-led Belt and Road Initiative, widely seen as Beijing's bid for geopolitical influence. "Those who mocked us on the Silk Road must now admit that investing in this friendship has allowed us to save lives in Italy," he said.

Reality check: Germany and France have sent approximately equivalent shipments of medical supplies to Italy, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, and the EU provides significant support to Serbia's hospitals and has included it in its emergency stockpile of medical equipment.

  • But that support has been received with little publicity.
  • Germany also came under criticism for its early ban on the export of protective medical gear, which it has now lifted.

What they're saying: "Euroskeptic populist leaders are very happy to play along with Chinese propaganda, to say only China is helping us, to promote the idea of the lack of EU solidarity," said Lucrezia Poggetti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.

  • "Di Maio only held a media conference when help arrived from China, not from any other countries," said Poggetti.
  • Germany and France also sent aid "but they did it in silence because liberal democracies don’t spend half their time just doing propaganda," a characteristic that Poggetti said is a strength, not a weakness.

Between the lines: China's bid for influence in Europe only works when it can play to existing vulnerabilities, said Janka Oertel, the director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

  • Right now, that vulnerability is the appeal of strongman leaders who question European unity and need visual proof to show their populace their approach is working.
  • "The EU outplays China financially by so many degrees. But it doesn’t produce [the] kind of pictures that the authoritarian at the helm wants," she said, referring specifically to Serbia's Vucic.

What to watch: Even very pro-EU countries might see a rise in pro-China euroskeptics if the coronavirus crisis continues to spiral out of control.

  • Spain has long aligned closely with the EU and the U.S. in its attitudes towards China. But like Italy, it is now seeing hundreds of coronavirus deaths a day, and Germany's initial export ban on medical supplies soured many attitudes.
  • "Spain is not Italy yet in the sense that there is no politician very pro-Chinese as Italy has with the foreign ministry," Carlos Barragán, a reporter at Spanish news outlet El Confidencial, told Axios in an interview.
  • "Right now it’s not a breaking point. But if European countries continue to address the crisis on their own," said Barragán, "there’s a risk that Spain faces a rise in euroskepticism and with that comes the Chinese."
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