There is no point putting lipstick on a pig: the relationship between the United States and China, two powers holding a combined 40 per cent of the world’s GDP, is at its most depressing and alarming since the establishment of their diplomatic relations in 1979. As soon as you think bilateral ties couldn’t get any worse, Washington and Beijing prove us wrong by closing consulates and harassing each other’s diplomats.
This puts the European Union, that slow, cumbersome bureaucratic machine, in a tricky position. On the one hand, Europe doesn’t want to rock the boat with either the US or China. Yet on the other, EU officials and European heads-of-state are beginning to realise that the US-China grudgematch is forcing them to do the one thing they want to avoid: pick sides. On everything from trade and technology to high-stakes geopolitics, Europeans are increasingly bearing a resemblance to the struggling teenager caught between two estranged parents.
No European leader would like the return of normality more than German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a woman who will conclude her 16-year reign as Europe’s most powerful politician next year. Building the Germany-China relationship has been one of Merkel’s pet projects in the realm of foreign policy. And what better way to accomplish that objective than to exploit China’s massive domestic market for the benefit of German business? Berlin’s exports to China have increased five-fold since Merkel took the chancellorship in 2005. China has been Germany’s most important trading partner for four consecutive years; in 2019, over £180 billion in goods were exchanged between the two. For Merkel, this year’s drama about Covid-19 and all things China is a significant distraction from finally concluding an investment deal with Beijing that EU officials have been trying to negotiate over the last seven years.
And yet China’s perfidiousness this year is finally beginning to weigh on normally business-minded Europeans. The EU doesn’t like to rock the diplomatic boat, so the fact that the continent is now starting to assert itself against China’s business practices and foreign policy is a reflection of how unhelpful the Chinese Communist Party’s behaviour has been over the last six months. While Merkel may secretly wish for business as usual, even she is having a difficult time sweeping China’s litany of offences under the rug.