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. Leaders in the EU 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 toward 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.