An Important Partnership

2020-05-21 10:04:55 Beijing Review 2020年21期

By George N.Tzogopoulos

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has plunged the world into uncertainty with the impact on public health and the economy still beyond exact assessment as the crisis is ongoing. Theoretically, the pain and anxiety about the future should be the reason for deeper international cooperation but the difference between words and deeds is vast.

The growing U.S. antagonism toward China has overshadowed the global battle against the virus. Social stigma has been a critical problem from the very beginning, aggravating tensions. However, there are other examples that generate more optimism. One example is the evolving China-EU partnership.

Fighting a world crisis

Some lessons can be learned if we go back to January, a phase of uncertainty for China and relaxation for the West. The Chinese Government responded in a decisive way to control COVID-19, publicly admitting fl aws in the management of the situation by the local authorities in Wuhan, the city in central China where the outbreak in China was fi rst reported.

President Xi Jinping, who said the virus caught China by surprise in his address at the Extraordinary Group of 20 Leaders Summit in March, led the efforts to provide medical assistance, contain the contagion and share the effective containment practices.

The lockdown of Wuhan, in particular, has today become a typical procedure for some Western countries, including in Europe, which are imposing similar policies and their citizens have become used to staying home. It was an unprecedented, draconian measure decided under extremely delicate conditions that proved to be successful and helped China to place the virus under control.

Countries that followed the Chinese paradigm have managed to protect their people. Others have seen their number of fatalities soar. The numbers speak for themselves. In the fi nal count, the pandemic is a public health crisis. Its about human life, which is of equal value irrespective of gender, race, age or income.

At the outset of the crisis, the EU and several European states provided China medical assistance. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU delivered 56 tons of equipment in February. China publicly expressed gratitude for that.

The problem for Brussels is that it was entrapped in the thinking that the virus would respect borders. This became evident during the Munich Security Conference in mid-February that focused on the theme Westlessness—the loss of common standing of what it means to be part of the Wests—as if the problem of world health had been sufficiently addressed. Only Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi focused on COVID-19.

When the epidemic struck Europe a few weeks later, it was Chinas turn to provide medical aid to EU member states and non-EU countries, including Serbia, Switzerland and the UK.

Ironically, the exchange of medical assistance has been highly politicized in the Western discourse, including in Europe, running parallel with acknowledgments. It is being scrutinized and connected to alleged Chinese motivations in shaping the narrative about COVID-19.

But despite some politicization, the tone in Europe vis-à-vis China is milder in comparison to that of the U.S. Although this obviously depends on the specifi c country on the European continent, this is the general attitude. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said he regards China as an important partner in an interview with Euronews. He also said he prefers to concentrate on the potential solution of problems and look for synergies.

Video calls during the pandemic have shown the common will for cooperation. On March 13, a China-Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) virtual conference on COVID-19 saw government officials and medical experts from the grouping of 17+1 countries engage in an in-depth exchange of views on how to tackle the disease in a scientifi c way. A few days later, the Chinese Foreign Ministry and National Health Commission held an online meeting with 18 European countries including the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.

Additionally, Chinese Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan has been in regular contact with EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan and Internal Market and Services Commissioner Thierry Breton. And recent data from the China State Railway Group shows that the number of China-Europe freight trains hit a record monthly high in April.

In May, four months after the Chinese authorities diagnosed the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, the world has acquired more experience about the problem. Research is ongoing and new questions are being raised. Scientists from the Pasteur Institute in France, for instance, have conducted a new study demonstrating that the outbreak of COVID-19 in France was not caused by cases imported from China but from a locally circulating strain of unknown origin.