Capitals Special Edition – How effective is China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ in Europe?

In this Special Edition of the Capitals, EURACTIV.com looks into how the Chinese assistance has been perceived in different EU member states. [EPA/PANTELIS SAITAS]

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen warned on Wednesday (25 March) that the economic hardship caused by the coronavirus crisis could expose “strategic” European firms to foreign takeovers.

The coronavirus crisis affects deeply the European economy, and many companies are temporarily weakened by this crisis, we need to take care of them,” she said. “Some sectors are key for security, public health and serenity, such as health, medical research or strategic infrastructure,” she said.

Although her message did not explicitly refer to China’s “mask diplomacy”, a term recently coined by AFP, it is reasonable to suggest that Beijing could eventually have hidden ambitions in a post-coronavirus Europe.

However, in an op-ed published on EURACTIV.com today, Zhang Ming, head of the Chinese Mission to the EU, said the fight against the virus had nothing to do with the social system or geopolitics.

To politicise the outbreak or view China’s efforts with suspicion is nothing but parochial and detrimental. When people’s lives and health are at stake, the only right thing to do is to put politics and prejudice aside and join the global fight against the virus.

On 13 March, a Chinese plane loaded with medical supplies and experts arrived in Italy. The very same day, China led a videoconference with 17 European countries from Central and Eastern Europe to advise them on how to fight the virus and promised material help.

The European Commission also presented a €37 million economic package to mitigate the socio-economic impact of the outbreak. The package was praised by countries respirators, ventilators and other medical equipment are currently worth much more than just money.

Unlike China, the EU countries have not been able to provide Italy or any other state with medical supplies crucial to tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

However, the EU recently decided to ban exports of personal protective equipment outside the bloc and focus efforts internally.

According to the draft conclusions of the EU summit to be held later on Thursday (26 March), member states say this decision should “lead to the full lifting of any internal bans or restrictions, whether formal or informal”. Germany and France had already banned exports, which at the time attracted strong criticism from other EU partners.

Following the European Commission’s joint procurement initiative, the EU executive announced on Tuesday that international suppliers will be ready to provide personal protective equipment for fighting COVID-19 within two weeks.

Meanwhile, the “Chinese anti-coronavirus package” has arrived in many other EU member states, including in Spain, which now has the second-highest COVID-19 death toll in the world.

For the European Commission, China’s kind gestures are just a way of thanking those EU countries that had provided China with significant assistance when it was the epicentre of the coronavirus crisis some weeks ago.

Critics suggest that China’s “mask diplomacy” aims to build a rapprochement with Europe at a time when collaboration between Brussels and Washington has been poor.

In this Special Edition of the Capitals, the EURACTIV Network looks into how Chinese assistance has been perceived in different EU member states.

[Aneta Zachová | EURACTIV.cz – Edited by Sarantis Michalopoulos/ Daniel Eck]


**To stay up-to-date on everything to do with the coronavirus across the capitals, feel free to check out EURACTIV’s comprehensive overview, which is regularly updated with the help of our network of offices and media partners.**


NORTHERN/WESTERN EUROPE

HELSINKI. On Tuesday (24 March), it was reported that China had approached the Finnish government and offered to sell protective face masks. Also, the Estonian government had asked its Finnish counterpart whether Helsinki would be willing to agree to a joint purchase of equipment from China.

According to Finnish tabloid Iltalehti, the Finnish authorities and politicians have considered the Chinese offer and there’s been concern over the possible political and hidden motives behind such a gesture. However, it looks like Finland is to make a tentative decision to buy equipment in case they seem to be running out. The gates of the National Emergency Supply Agency were opened on Monday (23 March) to reassure the public.

TALLINN. In an interview by Iltalehti on Tuesday (24 March), President Sauli Niinistö said he could not confirm whether Finland and Estonia had decided to jointly buy masks and other equipment from China. Discussions over the issue have taken place between Mr Niinistö and the Estonian President, Kirsi Kaljulaid, as well as between the foreign ministers of the two countries. (Pekka Vänttinen | EURACTIV.com)

BRUSSELS. In Belgium, health minister Maggie De Block criticised EU member states for blocking medical mask exports as acting against the “spirit” of the European Union and welcomed the Chinese donations.

On Friday (20 March), five million masks from Shanghai landed at Bierset airport, while another delivery of over six million mouth masks arrived at Liège Airport on Monday (23 March). Most of the masks are surgical masks, but a shipment of 150,000 FFP2 masks are intended for health care staff who are in direct contact with corona patients.

In mid-March, Chinese retail giant Alibaba donated 500,000 mouth masks and 30,000 test kits to Belgium. The donation of protective and testing equipment was made thanks to the personal intervention of the King, and with the support of the Walloon export and investment agency Awex. “I would like to sincerely thank Jack Ma and Alibaba for supporting Belgium in the fight against COVID-19,” said De Block.

Belgian authorities confirmed that the federal prosecutor’s office had opened a fraud investigation after a €5 million order for protective masks failed to turn up. Belgium joined several European neighbours in a group purchase for protective gear from a Turkish company several weeks ago. (Alexandra Brzozowski | EURACTIV.com)

THE HAGUE. Chinese airlines supported Royal Dutch Airlines KLM with tens of thousands of face masks and gloves. In light of scarce resources at Dutch hospitals, KLM will, in turn, be helping the Erasmus MC in Rotterdam and other Dutch healthcare institutes, the Dutch airlines said.

BERLIN. German citizens have been trying to buy masks via the usual channels from China, the world’s largest producer, but there has been no formal cooperation between the two countries. Car manufacturing companies and other large factories are donating their stocks to the government instead, while some companies have already switched production to begin producing masks as well. Daimler, for instance, agreed to donate 110,000 masks. (Sarah Lawton | EURACTIV.de)

PARIS. At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the French government said its state stocks were sufficient to face the epidemic. But caregivers soon realised that this was not true, and many of them had to work without any protection. On 17 March, Health Minister Olivier Véran estimated that “110 million masks” remained in the state’s stocks, compared to more than a billion ten years earlier.

It’s not clear why France has reduced the state stock, but a parliamentary investigation will be launched after the epidemic to shed light on the three following topics: mask shortage, lack of screening tests, and the reduced capacity in terms of beds in intensive care units.

France has received one million masks from Beijing NGOs, announced Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. France had previously sent 17 tons of medical equipment to Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus appeared in December. (Cécile Barbière | EURACTIV.fr)


LONDON | IRELAND 

LONDON. There’s no talk of China donating or the UK buying face masks from China so far, though the UK has bought more than three million face masks in the past week.

However, the government is under pressure to improve the distribution of masks and protective equipment to hospitals. There have been a rising number of complaints from NHS staff that they are being put in danger by having insufficient surgical masks and aprons. (Benjamin Fox | EURACTIV.com)

DUBLIN. The Irish government is in talks with the Chinese administration on a potential deal for COVID-19 equipment, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said last weekend.

“We have a contract now to spend over €200 million on personal protective equipment that’s going to come from China,” Coveney said, adding that the Irish airline company Aer Lingus will operate flights between Ireland and China to bring back the supplies.

Coveney also revealed that he had spoken to the Chinese ambassador over the weekend and is likely to talk to the Chinese foreign minister in the coming days. “We’re close to an agreement to get 100,000 test swabs from China every week for the weeks that are coming up,” Coveney said. (Samuel Stolton | EURACTIV.com) 


EUROPE’S SOUTH

ROME. Chinese charities have given Italy 500,000 masks, 4 tons of medical material, 1,800 protective suits and 150,000 protective gloves by mid-March.

Some days later, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio announced the signing of a supply contract with a Chinese company for 100 million masks that will arrive in the coming weeks.

This first tranche of aid from China coincided with the stalemate at the EU level on PPEs of the past weeks, which triggered an anti-EU narrative in the country for a few days, fuelled in particular by the far-right parties.

Things calmed down as medical equipment was also sent from Egypt, Turkey, Germany, India, Ukraine and Russia. “We need 100 million a month,” Di Maio said, explaining that all the Italian embassies around the world are tasked with finding them.

A team of experts from the Chinese Red Cross visited Rome to support Italian specialists by sharing experiences, while 53 Cuban doctors and nurses are helping out in the hospital of Crema.

MADRID. On 20 March, Spain’s King Felipe VI thanked the president and founder of the Alibaba Group, Jack Ma, for donating 500,000 masks to Spain to help fight the spread of the coronavirus. According to the Jack Ma Foundation, the donation was made possible “thanks to the support of His Majesty the King and in close collaboration with the Spanish Ministries of Health, Consumption and Welfare”, whose action was crucial to obtain a rapid response and delivery of sanitary material.

Spain also purchased 640,000 quick testing kits from China in the past few days. Since last weekend, the government has distributed more than four million masks across the country (from various origins). Madrid, as the most affected region, received  1.2 million masks (30% of the total). (Fernando Heller | EFE)

ATHENS.  AirChina aircraft delivered a first official shipment of protective equipment, including more than half a million masks, on 21 March.

But the delivery also included an extra 10 tons of equipment as a donation from Chinese companies and organisations. The shipment was delivered by China’s ambassador in Athens to the ministers of health, state and foreign affairs. The Greek government expressed its gratitude, praising Chinese support and friendship.

A critical role in the delivery was played by the Chinese State Grid electricity company, already a shareholder in the Greek Electric Grid Company. But other companies like Cosco Shipping, Bank of China, ICBC, Huawei, also donated, according to the Chinese Ambassador.

Although Greece and China already have a solid 10-year-collaboration when it comes investments, the public opinion and state authorities do not view it as competing with the EU, even though the EU executive has strongly disagreed with all major Chinese investments in Greece (ports, electricity etc).

In Greek media, China holds a major responsibility for spreading the coronavirus so such moves are perceived more like damage control than a diplomatic effort to gain political-economic ground. (Theodore Karaoulanis | EURACTIV.gr)


VISEGRAD

WARSAW. According to the foreign ministry, it is thanks to Polish diplomacy, which has been in talks with the Chinese side for a number of days, that tens of thousands of protective measures will soon be delivered to Poland.

The Chinese embassy said that in this difficult moment “China is ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with Poles”. On Monday (23 March), Chinese Ambassador Liu Guangyuan formally handed in his government’s decision to provide the Poles with tests and protective clothing free of charge, according to the daily Rzeczpospolita,

China is offering Poland 10,000 test kits for detecting COVID-19, 20,000 of protective N95 masks adapted to the EU requirements, 5,000 pieces of special medical protective clothing, 5,000 safety glasses, 10,000 gloves, 10,000 shoe protectors.

“The Chinese side will continue to strengthen the exchange of experience and information with the Polish side, intensify cooperation in the fight against the epidemic and help Poland win against the disease”, said the Chinese embassy in Warsaw.

Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz expressed his gratitude for the help to the Chinese Ambassador in a phone call. He also emphasised the need to continue the cooperation with Beijing. “China thanked us for the support Poland showed them at the beginning of the epidemic, including a letter from President Duda to President Xi Jinping,” the minister said. (Karolina Zbytniewska | EURACTIV.pl)

BRATISLAVA. Slovakia has bought one million protective face masks and 100 testing kits, which appear not to be that reliable, from China. This is a material that was bought via public procurement through a Slovak company as the supplier. In other words, there is no narrative in Slovakia that portrays China as a helper. (Zuzana Gabrižová | EURACTIV.sk)

PRAGUE. In the Czech Republic, China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ has proven to be very successful. The first plane with face masks from China was welcomed at the airport by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and other members of the government. Czech President Miloš Zeman thanked China in his speech to the nation and the Chinese packages are now distributed to Czech hospitals.

The interior ministry, which is responsible for the Chinese supplies, communicates about Chinese help daily. It also emphasised that it was the first country in Europe that agreed with China on “air-bridge” that will deliver supplies of medical materials regularly. The narrative that the Chinese helped to the Czech Republic but the EU did not, is very strong.

However, Czech doctors and health care workers expected something slightly different, since FFP3 respirators that are needed the most are not part of the Czech-China deal. And doctors and laboratories have reported that Chinese products are of low quality and tests are not reliable.

BUDAPEST. Hungary has been trying to buy masks from China and finally succeeded. The first plane with medical equipment from China landed in Hungary on Monday (23 March), bringing 30,050 protective suits and 82,000 masks. Hungary itself produces about 25,000 masks a day.  (Vlagyiszlav Makszimov | EURACTIV.com)


THE BALKANS

SOFIA. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has spoken with his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang. Beijing expressed its readiness to make a large donation of masks, glasses, gloves and other sanitary materials.

A shipment from China has already arrived in Bulgaria, including 12,000 disposable masks and 2,000 special masks. “China once again proves the high level of its friendly and diplomatic relations with Bulgaria,” Borissov said in his conversation with the Chinese prime minister.

However, in Bulgaria, the main narrative is “we will produce it locally”. The country has a big textile industry and local production of masks and protective suits for medical personnel has started.

Also, in light of reports that Chinese-based medicines work, PM Borissov ordered resuming the production of the famous medicine Analgin-Chinine, a very popular medicine during communism which Bulgaria stopped producing in 2012 due to EU constraints.

“We will start producing because if we wait for the French company (producing similar medicine), there won’t be any for Bulgaria,” the Bulgarian leader said. He also criticised the EU for the lack of solidarity in the coronavirus crisis and said he ordered his ministers to study the Russian experience in fighting the pandemic.

(Georgi Gotev | EURACTIV.com, Krasen Nikolov |EURACTIV.bg)

BUCHAREST. The Chinese embassy in Bucharest donated masks and other protective equipment to hospitals in Bucharest. The Bucharest mayor posted a video on Facebook saying the Chinese ambassador had promptly reacted to the Mayoralty request to support Bucharest hospitals. ”It was the first gesture, but more will come. The ambassador sent our plea to the Chinese capital city and its mayor,” said Bucharest mayor Gabriela Firea. (Bogdan Neagu | EURACTIV.ro)

ZAGREB | LJUBLJANA | SARAJEVO | PODGORICA

Croatia, Slovenia, Bosna and Hercegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania have not reported any help from China so far. Croatia obtained a package from the United Arab Emirates. (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)

BELGRADE. There are no masks in pharmacies in Serbia, but they are expected to arrive in a few days. President Aleksandr Vučić stated that there would be 15 million protective masks in pharmacies in Serbia on 26 March, which will be distributed to the citizens, and that 35 million more would arrive, and after that, 50 million, with 49.5 million masks already purchased.

Serbia has approximately seven million citizens.

During the last weekend, two airplanes with aid from China arrived, which were also carrying an unknown number of masks.

At the same time, masks are also being produced in Serbia and there have also been announcements that machines for producing masks would be purchased.

The maximum price of masks, once they are available in pharmacies, will be set at RSD 120 (a little more than EUR 1)

***

[Edited by Sarantis Michalopoulos, Daniel Eck, Zoran Radosavljevic]

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