Huawei to ‘scale down’ supply of COVID-19 masks, after Borrell comments

A woman wearing a face mask looks at smartphones in a Huawei shop in Guangzhou, Guangdong, China, 21 February 2020. [EPA-EFE/ALEX PLAVEVSKI]

Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei will scale down its European mask donation programme for fear of becoming embroiled in a wider geopolitical powerplay, following comments from the EU’s Foreign Chief Josep Borrell that a ‘politics of generosity’ is being played out, as well as a ‘global battle of narratives’.

However, the company also said that it “remains open” to discussions with health authorities in Europe who are in “dire need” of additional equipment.

Over the past two weeks, Huawei has donated millions of masks to be used in the fight against the spread of the virus to several EU member states, including Italy, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Poland, Holland, and Spain.

The company is not the only Chinese firm to do so: There have also been donations from Alibaba, as well as from rival Chinese smartphone manufacturers.

The donations prompted the EU’s Borrell earlier this week to claim that there is a “global battle of narratives” at play.

Following the EU’s donation of medical equipment to China earlier in the year, “China has brought down local new infections to single figures – and it is now sending equipment and doctors to Europe,” Borrell wrote in a blog post.

“China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner. In the battle of narratives we have also seen attempts to discredit the EU as such and some instances where Europeans have been stigmatised as if all were carriers of the virus,” he said.

Huawei pulls back donations

On Thursday, a Huawei official familiar with the matter told EURACTIV that following Borrell’s comments, the company would be putting an end to its donation programme, not wanting to become involved in a geopolitical power play between the US and China.

“This isn’t the type of narrative we want ourselves to be associated with,” the official said, adding that the original intention of Huawei was never the engage in a ‘politics of generosity’ as Borrell had suggested.

“We will be putting an end to our mask donation programme here in Europe,” the official added. “For us, this was never meant to have been a PR campaign.”

In mid-March, EURACTIV reported that the Chinese embassy in Brussels had written to the EU’s Commissioner for crisis management Janez Lenarčič, pitching 50,000 nucleic acid test kits, 200,000 facemasks and two million surgical facemasks.

After being directed to the EU’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre, the equipment was then forwarded on to Rome, which was deemed to be needing them the most at the time.

Elsewhere in Europe, China has also chartered 10 flights carrying millions of masks and other medical equipment for delivery in the Czech Republic this week, prompting the Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamacek to claim that China is “the only country capable of supplying Europe with such amounts.”

More generally on the continent, Beijing has also shipped equipment to Serbia, after the government issued an appeal for assistance. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told Beijing’s ambassador to Serbia recently that without China, Europe could “hardly defend itself.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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